When Words Harm



Photo from the Dallas Morning News

And Actions Matter

 In my profession (writing and researching words, and thinking about their meanings) we argue: words mean.

Exactly what they mean and how is worthy of conversation, especially because humans create the meanings we attach to words.

From a Buddhist perspective, we can get trapped in what we think words mean.

One story our Buddhist teacher relates is about words, and the lack of words.

And thus I’ve heard (our teacher begins), “A prince gave a priest a handsome sum to build a Buddhist temple.”

As the temple was being built, the prince became more and more vexed because he felt he hadn’t been thanked properly.

The prince finally confronted the priest about his vexation.

The priest explains the reward lies in the giving of the gift, and of the building of the temple: not in the spoken or unspoken words of thanks.

Actions speak loudly.

In this case, the actions resulted in the building of a temple, a symbol of gratitude far greater than words themselves.

That words—or their lack—carry meaning is vexing in itself.

Perhaps the prince thought the priest was disrespectful.

Perhaps the prince wanted something more for his cash.

For the priest, the gift was the moment of giving, rather than in the acknowledgment.

Clearly one’s intentions and desires don’t always square with the receiver.

Here’s a contemporary example.

A recent tantrum from a television personality in North America raised hackles and headlines because of the words she used publicly to describe a political individual.

The TV personality claimed in a documented, public forum, that the political individual was the “baby” of “Muslim brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.”

Some construed the meaning of the words as follows:

The individual was the product of the union of a political group called the Muslim Brotherhood and an ape.

The remark translates as an insult.

Adding insult to the injury, many argued in news media and social networks that the remarks were racist.

The racist code refers to meanings embedded in the well-trod (and false) assumption that African people are “descended from apes.”

The TV personality later said (her own words, documented on tape) that she should be excused for her remarks because, “I thought the bitch was white.”

The TV star—Roseanne Barr—asks to be forgiven because she didn’t know the political operative—Valerie Jarrett—is African-American.

In my view, the insult causes harm, regardless of Barr’s intent.

The intent of the insult—dishonoring a member of the Obama administration with a remark about her parentage—cannot be softened or forgotten because Barr thought Jarrett was white.

We all lose when we’re insulted by the mean-spirited who intend to harm others: whether we are women, or Native American, or white, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or elders, or ….

Such remarks diminish all of us, and the speaker, too.

I feel harmed because a thoughtless TV personality with a bevy of followers denigrates another woman whose views diverge from her own.

And I feel diminished when a comedian I admire calls a member of the Trump family a “feckless cunt.”

Since actions speak louder than words, let us judge others by what they do.

Comedian Samantha Bee pointed out that Trump’s daughter had tweeted pictures of herself with her child, posed in a loving moment, against the current political backdrop of hundreds of parents being forcibly separated from their children.

Daughter Trump’s actions reveal a certain thoughtlessness that deserves rebuke.

But the name-calling guts Bee’s argument, and the focus became one of the insult uttered, rather than attending to the real culprit: the barbaric actions of an administration that endorses splitting apart families.

And Barr?

Her boss punished her by cancelling Barr’s television show.

Actions speak.


Uncredited photo from the Dallas Morning News from https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/2018/05/18/new-trump-immigration-policy-separates-families-cruel-could-make-bad-situation-worse-kids

26-30 July 2018











About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american, american indian, democracy, nativescience, social justice, social media, White gaze, writing, zen and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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