Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Words like Lashes

Words are wonderful things. I love words--they're my medium, my occupation, my joy. But words can do terrible things, too. Words can be so ugly, so hateful, so damaging they raise tender, purple bruises on our minds. They can cut us quicker and deeper than any blade and leave scars that far outlast the memory of the wound. And words never hurt more than when the damage is unintentionally and carelessly inflicted.

There's a boy I grew up with. This boy got married and had a son. It was a struggle getting him born; it was a struggle keeping him here after he was born. This child is a delight. He has a smile that melts the hearts of anyone within a mile radius. His giggle is infectious, and there is not a single person who knows him that doesn't love him. I guarantee you that his parents look at their beautiful boy with Down's Syndrome and they see only perfection. This boy is perfection. There is nothing negative, disappointing, frustrating, or bad about him.

How can anyone use the word retarded as an adjective for something bad?

I knew another boy in high school. This boy was talented. He was bright and he was kind and he was gay in the middle of a community that didn't know how to help him love himself. Ours was an awkward acquaintance, was bound to be, given that I was dating his ex-boyfriend. But I wonder about him, mourn him. What must it have been like to go to a high school where kids refused to take the name of the Lord in vain but threw around ugly, cruel terms for homosexuals like they were nothing? Where something about himself that he didn't choose and couldn't change was used as an insult, as a pejorative joke, as a substitute for stupid or awful?

He's dead now. I suppose it no longer bothers him when people unthinkingly use the word gay as an insult or negative adjective. It bothers me, though.

There isn't a person alive that can't be summed and sliced up with one cruel word. We have names for every group that can be considered "other." And when we use those awful words, we take a person--a complex person with a family and a history and a soul--and reduce them to one single thing. Their genitalia, their sexual orientation, their race. In that moment, in that single word, we have stolen their humanity.

Most of us care more than to use the truly awful words. But surely we can do better, think twice before using the ones we are used to, the ones that seem innocuous simply because they are common. Retarded and gay are not bad things. They never have been and they never will be. With so many words to choose from, a virtually infinite pool of adjectives, let's keep some safe. It's the least we can do for these people that are our friends, our neighbors, our children, our ghosts.

Please. Choose your words with care.

42 comments:

Carrie Harris said...

Wow. All I can say is ditto. A million times over.

Renee Pinner said...

Excellent message. Well written, as well. It isn't difficult to see why I'll soon be buying your books.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Beautiful.

heidikins said...

This is beautifully written, and that dead boy has changed most of my views on homosexuals, bless his heart. Thank you for writing this.

xox

T. Anne said...

It's heartbreaking to hear people spear each other with words.

Natalie said...

Thank you for saying this better than I could.

Marsha Sigman said...

This is something we need to keep in mind everyday. A blow doesn't have to be physical.

Beautifully put, Kiersten.

Marybeth Poppins said...

Wonderful post! My children are struggling with this right now ... trying to ignore other peoples words.
They are super tiny like me and unfortunately people LOVE to point that out. I wish there was a better way to get children to watch their words :(

L. T. Host said...

Kiersten, I can't thank you enough for saying this.

It's unfortunate it's become so prevalent in the world, especially when most of the people who use those words in that way would fly into a fit if you called them a negative word that described them, but would call you "stupid" for telling them that "stupid" hurts another person's feelings.

Oi. Our world is a troubled place indeed.

Maitland said...

I once read:

Sticks and stones
Only break bones
But words can shatter the soul.

It's so true, and your words were beautifuly written.

I am looking forward to your novels.

Rick Daley said...

That was very heartfelt and wonderfully written.

Please excuse my use of an adverb. I know there are many who frown upon them. I thought it fit the context in which it was used.

Mariah Irvin said...

Thank you for saying this.

Rachel Bateman said...

Thank you for a blog post I think many people need to read. The message is powerful and beautifully written. I too am appalled at the hurtful things people say so flippantly to make a point.

When I was in massage school, a friend and I started saying "that's so football" in the places where our classmates would say "that's so gay." We got a lot of weird looks at first, but eventually people got our point. We didn't hear the phrase much after that.

Mireyah Wolfe said...

I think people who use those words aren't so much stealing their target's humanity, as showing their own lack thereof.

Andrea Cremer said...

Kiersten, thanks for this post it is so timely and important. I can't stand the use of the words gay and retarded as insults in slang, it is so cruel and thoughtless. Thanks for speaking up.

lotusgirl said...

A good reminder for us to be careful with our words.

Nick said...

I used to make little jokes at people a lot until I realized that even if it was just a joke, it still hurt a little, and the hurt added up. When people say "I was just kidding" or "It was just a joke" I tell them that jokes still hurt a little. You really do have to be careful of what you say, because you never know what someone is going through at how they will be affected.

Anonymous said...

I love how as writers, we can explore the words, motivations and views of our characters in a unique way. In the end, isn't it the emotions behind the words that hurt or warm our hearts?

On a side note, I don't think humanity can be diminished or fully defined.

Alina said...

Oooh, I thought I couldn't admire you much more but now I do. Given your religious beliefs, and accompanying culture (where sometimes not taking the Lord's name in vain and going to church every week seems more important than actually being NICE to people), I know how much thought and care went into that post. Way to get us all thinking. That was very well said.

Alina said...

Oh, and when I first saw the title of this post I thought you were talking about eye-lashes and wondered where you were going with that. You should write a poem with the same title but make it BE about eye-lashes. That would be cool.

Anthony said...

Words matter.

They matter a lot.

For example, when I hear "retard" I think of slacking the tempo on the piano piece I am playing. In another context: a suspension resolving upward, a nonharmonic note that is repeated or held from a harmonic note and then resolves up by step to a harmonic note.

But, directed towards a person, as my mother-in-law used to say, "don't be ugly."

Lady Glamis said...

Thank you, Kiersten, for writing this. Thank you.

Stephanie Perkins said...

YES, a hundred times, YES.

ella144 said...

This concept is something I still struggle to explain to my children every time it comes up.

On the other side of this are phrases like mentally challenged and hearing impaired which I feel are insulting in their avoidance of the truth, like we are trying to dance around the truth instead of coming out and saying it.

Dominique said...

My heart warms to know that there are others who care about what we mean and who we can hurt by playing fast and loose with our words. Thank you for this post.

Lora said...

YES!

You are exactly right.

I have a policy in my 2nd grade class that the words "stupid" and "shut up" are not to be spoken because "stupid" means that someone cannot learn and we can all learn and "shut up" is a meaner way of saying "I don't care what you have to say".

We have to be so careful with our words, they can inflict such pain.

Liam said...

I know, right?! I hate it when people use 'gay' for stupid--if they don't mean homosexual, the word should mean 'happy' or 'lively' and then my brain hurts.
Awww. I worked with a boy with Down's and I'm working with him for a week every summer. It's hard work, but it makes you feel good.

People are so mean...

Ashley said...

Very well said. You are amazing ;)

DebraLSchubert said...

Beautiful post, Kiersten. I couldn't agree more. When you're raised as a minority (I was raised Jewish) you are more keenly aware of the pain that words and stereotypes inflict. The pain is deep and long-lasting. I still remember in 2nd grade when a girl, who I thought was a friend, called me a "dirty Jew." She may as well have stabbed me through the heart.

Little Brother said...

I am always amazed at the level of ignorance that people are capable of. It doesn't surprise me that most kids in high school say things like "that's gay" and "that's retarded". But when the principal of the school says things like that in an assembly? Well, I was downright shocked.

Jessie Oliveros said...

Great post Kiersten. Thank you for putting it out there.

You know how some imagery will never leave you? Well, "tender, purple bruises on our minds" is that for me.

Lisa and Laura said...

I knew all that stuff about sticks and stones was BS. All joking aside, this was a beautiful post. It hurts my heart a little bit to think about people using words like these.

But I will say that I think there's a place for words like this in literature. I think that they can be used to define characters and teach lessons. But it's a fine line to walk and definitely provides food for thought. I've never used either of these words in my own writing, and I'm not sure I'd ever want to.

Nadine said...

Wow, so very very true.

Beautiful post.

jckandy said...

Wow, Kiersten. This really makes you think. It seems rather out of place to say you construct words "beautifully" when your post was talking about the cruel ugliness of the world, but in fact it is true. Thank you for opening our eyes with knifeslashes like "retarded" and "gay".

CKHB said...

Thank you.

Christina Lee said...

this brought tears to my eyes for many different and private reasons- thank you!

ElanaJ said...

So, so true. It's important to remember that as much as words can heal, they can also hurt. Thanks for the reminder. :)

JennyMac said...

I loved this...

am visiting from Lisa and Laura and am so glad I did.

I applaud this post. I have a gay brother and do not tolerate gay bashing. I also volunteer with kids with Autism and find it unsavory how many grown people use the word retard. Shows me instantly how insensitive the person is. Ironically, people who use derogatory terms seem to be the least aware of how inappropriate they are....

shame.

Tara said...

I wish I could say that I've never been guilty of this. But it is a good reminder to always try to do better.

Valerie said...

I am just catching up with all my blogs but I just wanted to say (way late) that this is a beautiful post and it makes me even more excited to read your novels! Thank you for taking the time to post this!

Blueicegal ♥ said...

oh god, your post made me so sad and emotional, thank you for sharing, i mean it, im so sorry

Anonymous said...

you know, I just had to totally re-evaluate my thoughts on a few things just now. It was a good moment.