What’s in a name? A lot.
The first time I was called the derogatory version of a female dog, I cried. I had picked up a jacket left in the school gymnasium, and intending to turn it into the office, I turned around. Only to have it torn from my hands, and the nasty label spat in my face. That was in junior high.
The first time I returned the insult, I cried. I regretted it as soon as the word left my mouth, but I couldn’t take it back. That was still junior high.
We at Scroll see the power of words; we are cautioned to be clear and accurate in what we say and especially in what we write. We also see the need for this “disrespect and contempt” to be eradicated from the language around us, especially in how we refer to others.
It’s impossible to remember all the times we’ve heard someone torn down, belittled or labeled as something they’re not. Often, we become so desensitized to it that we don’t even register hearing them anymore. Or worse, we don’t even register saying them ourselves.
Derogatory terms like swears or slurs are easier to pick out. We are taught that they are wrong, and it is easier to see how these labels affect those around us.
But the Gospel Topics manual, put out by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, describes profanity as not only vulgar speech but also as “disrespect or contempt for sacred things.”
Isn’t it time we started considering individuals around us as sacred and seeing that the way we speak about them is “disrespect or contempt for sacred things”?
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, agrees this is a problem because we, as a human race, are vulnerable to the “slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing.”
This dehumanization starts as we create an “enemy image.” We identify someone as against us. Then, according to Brown, we “start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.”
Often, this lack of empathy may prevent us from realizing we are being offensive.
Andra Hansen, a communication professor, told a story about a student in one of her courses at Idaho State University. As the end of the semester drew near, the student grew more upset.
“Quit referring to me as a not,” he said.
At a university in Idaho, this young man was surrounded by members of the Church. Members who referred to those not of their faith as non-members.
As Hansen recounted, the young man said he was tired of this title. He was a member of something. Something that also promoted faith, love and family. But, he said, none of them would know that because they’d never gotten past the fact that he was a non-member.
The way we refer to someone changes how we interact with them. It causes a divide, and not us does not equal not human. Not a member doesn’t mean not human.
This creates a moral exclusion — groups view their norms, standards or morals as higher than another. In other words, pride and contempt — contempt for sacred things.
Then we end up separating our own morals and applying them only where we are comfortable doing so. This is dangerous in every aspect of life including when we identify others.
We must remember that contempt should never be used to define another — no matter what we think of them.
“When the president of the United States calls immigrants animals… we should get chills down our spine and resistance flowing through our veins,” according to Brown. “When people call the president of the United States a pig, we should reject that language regardless of our politics and demand discourse that doesn’t make people subhuman.”
When we hear someone called stupid, slow, mental or anything that we would not want used to describe ourselves or our loved ones, we should reject that language. Even if you don’t know them. Even if you don’t like them.
When we are tempted to complain or criticize others, we should remember to express our feelings in a way that does not degrade the person, and we should be aware of how easy it is to accidentally do so.
“It’s a way of thinking—a way of thinking that, sadly, comes all too easily to us,” according to David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.
When our instinct is to use words that are cruel or degrading, we can think of President Thomas S. Monson’s words:
“Let us not demean or belittle,” he said. “Rather, let us be compassionate and encouraging. We must be careful that we do not destroy another person’s confidence through careless words or actions.”