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Words in the ears and mouths of the beholder

The teacher in me is having a hard time these days. You don’t teach for 17 years and just turn off that aspect of your personality. Forgive me.

For one thing, I like young people. I like being around them. I like remaining positive and hopeful about younger generations and naively hope they will make decisions differently and better than my own.

But if I have any bone to pick with the younger generation and school administrations (Plumas Unified School District and Plumas Charter School — no one gets out of this one unscathed) and parents it’s this: we’ve raised kids to think that people can have their own facts; we’ve raised them to not have empathy.

And both these things need to stop — but where to begin the slow climb back to civility and civics and citizenship? We need to call them on their words.

Civics. The etymology of the Latin word means roughly a crown of oak leaves for the one who “saved the life of a fellow citizen.”

It starts with words. Words are how we communicate in public space and our words need to be better. More accurate. Less Orwellian. Less conniving. Less belittling.

If I hear two white kids in Greenville calling each other the N-word one more time, I think I’ll scream.

If I hear one more news source refer to neo-Nazi movements as ‘alt-right’ I’m going to lose it too.

I’ve been cynical about words for a long time — maybe since that gutted Clean Water Act of 2003, which weakened the actual Clean Water Act of 1972.

Words change meaning. Intentionally. Words become political. It’s easier to be scared of someone if he or she is an alien. It’s harder to hate someone if he or she is a worker without papers. She might have a family. He might be human.

I think of the words “conservative” and “liberal” and how they’ve gone from being simple terminology to describe someone’s worldview to becoming curse words. Their definitions are allusive. I think “conserve” and I immediately think of conservation of the environment. I think ‘liberal’ and I think I need a bigger dollop of whip cream in my coffee (don’t judge).

Ambrose Bierce offered a great definition in the Devil’s Dictionary of 1911 when he said, “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

I never thought about how media use words until my first post college job as an editorial assistant at the Los Angeles Times in the early ’90s. We had style sheets. There were words we could and could not use to describe people. Those descriptions yielded influence.



Guerilla Warfare.


The American Revolution was won because American colonists who turned against Britain acted out the definitions of these words. But that’s not how they could be used at the Times. Terrorists are only foreigners regardless of the act of terror itself. “Rebel” and “Resistance” were too romantic for foreigners. “Guerilla” could only be used for developing countries.

I think of this now as the national media struggles to come to terms (pun intended) with words to describe what’s going on in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux and the tribes and peoples joining to protect the land and water want to be called “water protectors.” The media wants to call them “protesters.” The authorities want to pronounce them “criminals.”

At the Times too, I learned the role of description in painting a picture for the reader. I remember a letter to the editor that chewed out the editorial staff for describing African American kids by race, but white kids by “golden curly locks and bright blue eyes.” Small things — a few words — can craft meaning and perception.

Back to the schools.

I write this column after spending a few hours volunteering in the library. I just made December’s displays. Each month I look up what national month it is (did you know December is root vegetable month?!), and make four displays that showcase books we have in the Indian Valley Collective Library that reflect the national month’s themes.

As I do this, I am reminded that a parent complained about the library having books about feminism. Now there’s a loaded word. Feminism is the radical idea that women should be treated equally to men — that translates into various things such as equal pay for equal work, equal insurance premiums and price of hair cuts even. Perhaps an equality of household chores and reproductive responsibility?

For me, feminism is kind of like breathing. I practice it but I’m not aware of it; it’s been with me all my life. Nothing to fear, but certainly an anonymous person in Greenville is fearing my breathing.

I am reminded that there are talk show hosts in this country who made it their job to make “feminism” sound evil. “Femi-Nazi” I think was the term one dinosaur of a man decided to brand us. (Yes, I know I just branded him a “dinosaur.” See what I mean?).

Along with being AIDS Awareness Month, Root Veggie Month, Drunk Driving Awareness, and Spiritual Literacy and Writing a Business Plan Month (a great idea for that last week before New Year’s if I’ve ever heard one) is National Human Rights Month.

As I assemble books about World War II, propaganda, the Taliban versus girls trying to get an education in Pakistan, holocaust survivors, the bullying of LGBTQ kids in rural areas, the Civil Rights Movement, Mandela, Ghandi and everyone who dared to live up to their own human dignity — I’m aware that words are dangerous things. For every civil rights tragedy in the world, there are people trying to collapse the humanity of those seeking freedom through words.

Words tell stories.

I am reminded right now of three.

In the National Museum of Poland in Krakow, the modernist wing houses paintings whose plaques indicated that all the painters died in the same year — 1942 — the year painting by Slavs was no longer tolerated in the Nazi regime. The paint was the artists’ words and words are dangerous.

Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova wrote the famous poem “Requiem” in her head in the 1940s and could not write it down until after Josef Stalin died in 1953 for fear of what he would further do to her family or her. It was published in the Soviet Union for the first time in 1987.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge imprisoned in Tuol Sleng all those people among them who wore glasses. Glasses demonstrated an ability to read too much. Too many words; too many ideas.

Words are important. I am no longer a teacher. I try to instill that idea in my own children and any I have influence over. I tell them to choose carefully. I tell them to be clear in their definitions, to be equal, and to call out words that seek to change the story.

Choose words that make us human.

15 thoughts on “Words in the ears and mouths of the beholder

  • yes even back the they try to change the meaning of words my fav of Bierce Democrat1. an American Communist. 2. one who practices bestiality, witchcraft, and sponsors public pornography; a drug user; alt spelling, Demoncrat. & yet stays the same.ironically, now days here in our republic, the national socialist party wants us to be a democracy. it’s self a contradictory of termsas they can’t win a debate so they use censorship & call it fairness
    goooood times

    • Well, you paint in awfully large brush strokes. This is kind of like saying all conservatives are idiot internet trolls that write with numbers, such as yourself.
      But we all know how you trumptards are with facts and comprehension, so I’ve redefined some words to help you.

      Landslide: a marginal victory
      Ivanka: a sexual object
      Twitter: the meaning of life
      Trump tower: center of the universe
      Trump: god
      California: state that lets illegal immigrants vote
      Bankruptcy x4: just good business
      Sexual assault: locker room talk
      14$ million : a small loan

      noun: democrat; plural noun: democrats; noun: Democrat; plural noun: Democrats
      an advocate or supporter of democracy.
      a member of the Democratic Party.

      late 18th century (originally denoting an opponent of the aristocrats in the French Revolution of 1790): from French démocrate, on the pattern of aristocrate ‘aristocrat.’

      • u r soooo cute, temper tantrum after your loss….
        but trumps an independent.
        democrat ie national socialist party
        as history shows us better times with a r, no recovery under a d.
        funny Russia saved us with hack, showed how evil killery is.
        as putin said in interview.
        & that’s another check mate some day u might win, but history & facts is on my side

        • No recovery under democrats? This amount of economic growth wouldn’t be needed without the right wing policies(deregulation) that crashed the economy to begin with.

          Trumplethinskin an independent, haha. Let me know how that cabinet filled with billionaires and their trickle up economic tax policy works out for you. You’ve been shagged, simpleton.

          Will you still think I’m cute if I post your personal information on-line too?

          • class envy much,,again as history shows us when Ds are in control depression & recession happens, as the iron lady said eventually you run out of other people’s money.we have 3 houses, arther & hoover warned us several times, bush 3 times,, its a history thing, thanks for playN,, & the win

          • The economy crashed on Bush’s watch, period. When he left office Americans were losing 800,000 jobs a month. Under Obama’s term we’ve seen over 15.5 million new jobs and 95 months of consecutive job growth. The Dow Jones has gone from a staggering low of 7,949.09 to over 19,000. Oh and that debt you speak of, with 10 trillion inherited from Bush, 2 trillion in interest, 8 trillion on two foreign wars that were also started under Bush and a wall Street/ auto industry bail out, I’d say he did pretty well.

            Do you even read comprehend my post, ad hominem boy?

            Will you still think I’m cute when I post your personal information, Dennis?

          • yes after 3 warnings,, a couple right up in congressional hearings about Clintons actions like fair housing act & demise of glass stigal. we need some 250,000 jobs just to break even & has not been met yet. we are >50% not contributing,food stamps up,,was25ish%. dj 20k after tump bump & the other 800ish R wins & ford & others coming back, not hardly dumbinson as yet,must be the volumetric efficiency. any way & not even prez yet… debt was 5t when prez O started. bail out should not have been, big lose for shareholders end result still assembled not manufactured. yes sweety your still cute, makes us 6 & 0 thanks for the win again

          • Hahaha, class envy that’s pretty funny considering you live in low income housing (subsidized by the government) built in the seventies and are living off ssi payed for by hard working liberals.

            Your stupidity is astounding, it’s hard to say if you are just an uneducated idiot or a willfully ignorant liar, hmmm. Either way if you continue to post your pathetic grasp on reality I will dox you.

            Do you really want me to post your personal information, Dennis?

          • Wow, reporting my post a spam now, huh? Did I strike a nerve, does this mean I “win” Dennis ?

          • Nop:
            Not me, not a leftis, like pbs, lamebook, news views, PNC 4 awile ect ect, they censor when they lose, as I haven’t & still wouldn’t 1st amendment you got right 2b check mated on all your stuff,boring but fun,, where are you reported as spam, I see your stuff here on pnc. Or couldn’t reply 2 u,,,duh

          • Hahaha, class envy that’s pretty funny, are you still living in low income housing (subsidized by the government) and living on ssi provided by hard working taxpayers?

            Your stupidity is astounding, it’s hard to say if you are just an uneducated idiot or a willfully ignorant liar, hmmm. Either way if you continue to post your pathetic grasp on reality I will dox you.

            Do you really want me to post your personal information, Dennis?

          • Go ahead and keep crying wolf on your report button, Worthless baby boomer.

          • Yes I’m , not & never at loserville ie low income housing & not on ssi

          • Only in your own mind, Dennis Dickinson. I’ll do a parcel search later, Id be willing to bet you dont even own your home, lol class envy. Are you still on Meadow way?

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