Commentary: What a Difference a Word Makes
TSPR listeners to Morning Edition may have heard Cathy Null’s commentary last month. Cathy noted a fairly new way people identify themselves, adding a pronoun (he, him, she, her, or they) to their name to acknowledge the fluidity of gender identity and to recognize how individuals see themselves and want others to see them.
Krista Bowers-Sharpe, in her recent commentary, also discussed language. She focused some of her comments on how the meaning of words slips and slides as different individuals use them. She noted that “Our lived experiences—upbringing, time period, economic reality, gender—all unite to change the emotional impact and full meaning of a given word.”
You probably have also noticed new words are constantly being added to our store of words, not surprising, given our need to name all that exists in the universe of ever-expanding technology and science. Word choices can change our understanding of our world, since “Language is how we construct reality.” (Mushim Ikeda, Lion’s Roar, 1-22, p. 58).
Would speaking of the Africans brought to this country against their will as enslaved rather than as slaves have changed the perception of their—and our--reality? Enslaved presupposes an actor, someone or something responsible for placing a person, a human being with innate dignity, in the position of enslavement.
The most striking example of a word choice I have come across recently is the substitution of rebellion for riot, a very deliberate choice historian Elizabeth Hinton makes in America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. As Dr. Hinton points out, “The so-called urban riots from the 1960s to the present can only be properly understood as rebellions. These events did not represent a wave of criminality, but a sustained insurgency. The violence was in response to moments of tangible racism … almost always taking the form of a police encounter” (P. 6-7).
Professor Hinton meticulously documents and analyzes the excessive police violence that repeatedly led to community violence that, in turn, led to an escalation of police, and at times, military violence. The cycle repeated itself despite studies clearly showing this approach was ineffective and linking the rebellions to inequities that left Black communities with little or no access to adequate employment, effective education, or decent housing (p. 171-72).
What struck me with particular force was Dr. Hinton’s chapter on the violence that followed requests by young Black students for access to the services and opportunities provided white students. For example, a request for courses in Black history and culture was met with refusal and confrontation, police intervention, further confrontations, arrests, student suspensions, and an ongoing police presence in the school.
Would a change in language have led to changes in the relations between the African American communities and the larger communities in which they lived? The act of rebelling suggests pushing back against something or someone after the thoughtful assessment of a situation and purposeful planning, though rebellions can seem spontaneous, the result of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because they can involve civil disobedience they can be seen as unlawful, but at their root, they are protests against injustice, against oppression. Riots suggest out-of-control actions that often reflect intense frustration that has boiled over into chaotic protest and criminality.
Moving away from the term riot, which generally puts the onus on the rioters and holds them responsible for the violence and damage that results, to identifying these same encounters as rebellions invites us to consider what the people are rebelling against. Are they justified? In her focus on the history of police violence and Black rebellion, Professor Hinton explores unjust treatment, inadequate resources, limited opportunities, that is, systemic racism, behind the rebellions. She is able to see the trees but also the forest, the individual rebellions as well as the patterns that emerge. As a historian she is careful to identify her terms and the parameters of her study. In doing so she has made a strong argument for a reevaluation of a critical aspect of our history. She asks us to review that history using a different lens, that is, a different word, and she shows what a difference a word makes.
Given that solid research from multiple respected institutions has clearly spelled out solutions to the oppression against which African Americans have been rebelling, why do we continue to ask police to solve the problems for which they are not trained while ignoring real solutions?
Janice Welsch is a Western Illinois University faculty emerita.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.
Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.