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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 6:38 am | Mostly Cloudy 43º


Scott Harris: Language Matters

We need leaders who use language to promote discussion and debate, not to stop it.

Language matters. It is the tool that replaces violence in civilized societies. Discussions and debates are the way we explore ideas, resolve differences and, in the best of circumstances, reach compromises and take action. In a nation of 300 million people, there will always be differences. There should be. The only thing more frightening than the rifts between segments of society is the idea that we would have no apparent differences.

Scott Harris

Debates are great things. They should be an open airing of differences of opinion, the exploration of options and an opportunity for each side to learn more about the other. However, debates have been replaced by arguments, and as a society we have become far too polemic. Political commentary has been replaced by “entertainment,” two people, each representing the extremes of the issue, screaming invectives.

Didn’t vote for Hillary? Sexist! Against same-sex marriage? Homophobe! Don’t support affirmative action? Racist! Religious? Fanatic! Support the war in Iraq? Warmonger! Pro-choice? Murderer! Such accusations are frequently, even usually, unfounded. They stop discussion and discourse and rob us of the possibility of reaching an understanding.

Liberal and conservative are now used as pejoratives. A liberal (as defined by the dictionary, not by a conservative) is someone who favors civil liberties and social progress. Conversely, a conservative is defined as someone who favors retention of the existing order. Wouldn’t a combination of the two best serve the country?

No one can dispute that we have come a long way in racial and gender equality and that the liberal wing played an indispensable role in that growth. At the same time, the United States of America is the greatest, most prosperous, freest country in the history of the world. Certainly we can find value in many of our existing ideas, systems and traditions. Our successes should be maintained, our failures remedied. Imagine (can you hear John Lennon in the background?) for a moment if the parties actually worked together for the betterment of all.

Political correctness, like many a good idea, has run its course and is now causing more damage than good. Removing terms such as “nigger” and “wetback” from our vocabulary was important. However, what is the difference between Latino (and Latina) and Hispanic? I have been corrected both ways, by indignant people. In my lifetime, we have gone from “colored” to “negro” to “black.” Currently, depending on who you’re speaking to, “person of color” or “African American” is the preference. Changing the words does not change the reality or solve the problem.

I am reminded of an editorial meeting I attended years ago. The magazine was for people who had a variety of physical disabilities, and we were discussing whether to refer to readers in writing as crippled, handicapped, disabled or physically challenged. After a few hours of this, one meeting participant, a gentleman in a wheelchair, said, “Does any of this help me get up the stairs? I don’t care what you call me. Let’s just fix the problems.”

Every minute spent discussing what something or someone should be called takes time and energy away from solving the very real problems that we face in this country. As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name ... .”  Calling a bad school a “high priority,” calling an illegal immigrant “undocumented,” calling abortion “choice” and adding “challenged” after any noun doesn’t change the problem, alleviate painful realities or get us any closer to a solution.

Plainspokeness is a lost art in this country. We need leaders who use language to promote discussion and debate, not to stop it. Talk, don’t shout. Discuss, don’t argue. Listen! Give us political commentators, talk-show hosts and columnists who want to bring us together, not drive us apart. Give us politicians who acknowledge the achievements of their opponents, recognize their own failures and accept that, in many cases, the answers lie in understanding and compromise.

Our elected officials need to quit “addressing the issue” and start “solving the problem.” As our mothers taught us, “Use your words.”

Scott Harris is a political commentator. Read his columns and contact him through his Web site, www.scottharris.biz, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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