I was having coffee with a friend who was describing a workshop she once attended discussing the power of words and how they help shape our perception. For example: When did we stop using the term “undocumented worker” and substitute it with “illegal alien”? There really is quite a difference, isn’t there? Or when did we switch from talking about people suffering under poverty to labeling them as people who are “collecting a welfare check”?
Once you begin to view language in this way, the labeling becomes quite apparent. Then we can see how killing someone with a gun becomes “use of excessive force.” Or, citizens killed in a war zone become “collateral damage.” In every instance, it appears that the intent is to take the humanity out of the description; to make it seem cold and even analytical; or to make it demeaning by stripping away all sense of dignity.
We begin to see how words are used to accentuate threats or to delegitimize entire groups of people as in the case of using Muslim terrorists as an excuse to attack all Muslims. It is interesting how we are more likely to be attacked by a home-grown extremists than we are by any Muslims, yet our focus is on Muslims; those who aren’t like us. Is it because of how we have become accustomed to reading and hearing about Muslims; about the words used to describe them?
We are a country that has a long history of labeling in order to disparage entire populations of people. See for yourself by taking this little test. See if you know the demeaning label for these populations: African American, Native American, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Italian, Irish, Caucasian? Of course you do. You’ve heard the derogatory terms in conversations at social outings, in school yards, at work, maybe even in your homes. Perhaps you have read them. At times, they seem pervasive.
Using demeaning language is nothing new in America, and in fact it seems to be on the rise. Using pejorative descriptions to advance public policy is also nothing new to our country. From the very inception of our nation we used words to devalue an entire race of people in order to accomplish a political goal. We only need to refresh our memory on the “three-fifths compromise” at the Constitutional Convention. This “compromise” allowed southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a white person when considering population to apportion congressional seats. I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into the genocide of the Native American population or the abuses of slavery as these exploitations are seared into our history. We have also devalued women from our earliest years. The “Declaration of Sentiments” drafted for the New York Women’s Rights convention of 1848 details the degradation of women that was codified in customs and laws throughout the land.
It is too easy to point to our past or to point to others as the perpetrators of objectification. But how do each of us contribute to this issue? Whom have I devalued? How about “Trump supporters” or “Neo-Nazis” or “right-wing extremists” or “suburban Republicans”? I must confess that I have used these terms to describe others. It isn’t something I’m proud of doing. I bring it up to make my point that we are all guilty of using words as weapons.
But the past doesn’t have to be the precursor to the future. I have a suggestion. When you hear a derogatory term such as illegal alien, or enemy, or any one of the unseemly racial slurs, or right-wing Republican, just substitute the phrase: Child of God.
An illegal alien is a child of God.
A welfare recipient is a child of God.
An enemy combatant is a child of God.
A Muslim is a child of God.
A Liberal Democrat is a child of God.
A Right-Wing Republican is a child of God.
We are all, children of God. Are we not? Perhaps that’s the only label we should use.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.