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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Words Have Power


Writers understand this better than most. The way we describe things shapes what people think about them. We've recently seen a powerful and awful example of this with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture.  We know that enhanced interrogation is the same as torture but somehow describing it as enhanced interrogation makes it sound more palatable than torture. The very word, torture, makes it impossible to pretend you don't know you're approving of something evil.

Politicians often go to great lengths to find names for laws that make them sound necessary and innocuous. Thus we end up with the Patriot Act  (PATRIOT being the acronym for " Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001"). Well, who could be against something like that? Obviously, almost no one but the devil is in the details and some of us are not so thrilled with some of the various tools required to intercept and obstruct.

Kentucky has a healthcare program which is very popular in the state and Tennessee's governor is in favor of passing the same kind of legislation. I say, Kentucky's program is popular and it is - as long as you call it Kynect and not, heaven forbid, Obamacare  - although it is simply Obamacare by another name.

A male character, depending on the words a writer uses to describe him, can be wimpy or he can be sensitive; he can be commanding or he can be a bully. Is our blonde female a brassy blonde or does she have a palomino mane or, perhaps, flaxen locks - change a word or two and we conjure up pictures of three completely different women.

Per our description, the same weather can be a welcome friend or a mortal enemy. Does your character see that snow drifting down, piling softly around the house, as a fire blazes merrily in the fireplace, as cozy or does it seem endless, as she wonders when she'll be able to leave, while she takes a mental inventory of the food she has in the house. Is she enclosed by the quiet beauty of the snow or imprisoned by the harsh isolation of it?

Words are not just words, they are emotions. They are persuaders. They are weapons or they are salvation. They have power - and they confer their power on us. To be writers, word people - sometimes that seems like an awesome honor as well as an awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Words Matter - I Wish I Could Disappear This One

    This is a thug.

    So is this

   And this


    They can sometimes be too.


Words matter. For instance, I have grown to despise the word "thug". The dictionary defines a thug as a "violent person, especially a criminal" but it has become a catch-all phrase to define our biases. Mostly, it is used to describe black males, be they violent or criminal or not, if they simply look that way to a segment of society. If a young man is black and wearing a hoodie, hey, that's enough to tag him as a thug. Follow that thinking a little farther and you can probably get away with shooting him because, you know, you were in fear of your own safety. You don't have to actually BE in danger, you simply have to BELIEVE you were....or say you believed you were.

And never fear that certain parts of the media will jump in and eagerly contribute to their labeling as thugs. The first piece of "evidence" we got in the Michael Brown shooting was a video of Michael stealing cigars from a convenience store, which isn't to say that had Darren Wilson been charged with some damn thing, even involuntary manslaughter, that wouldn't have come out in a trial and influenced a jury. But, as it was, it was a Cover Your Ass move by the police to paint Michael Brown as a thug before any other details of the case were released.

And Trayvon Martin was smeared by social media and professional media alike. He had been "suspected" of theft by his school, we learned. And he was carrying the ingredients, Skittles and some kind of drink, that are supposedly used to make some concoction for getting high.  So, it wasn't that big a deal that he was killed. Society can do without thugs of his kind.

And now the 12-year-old that was shot within 2 seconds of police arriving to see a boy carrying what turned out to be a b-b gun. Tamir Rice had never been in trouble but his mother and her boyfriend were legitimate pieces of crap so, mostly likely, Tamir would have turned out to be a thug with that kind of background. Police probably just saved society some heartache by taking him off the grid.

I debate with a lot of people on Facebook about these issues. As soon as I see the word thug, I know what I'm in for. They can't even begin to put themselves in the shoes of the parents when their child's body is left on the street for 4 1/2 hours after his death (Michael Brown) or they aren't notified that their son is in the morgue (Trayvon Martin) because their kids aren't thugs so it doesn't compute. Raise a thug and that's what you can expect. Shrug.

In raising these questions, I have been called "sewer scum" and nigger-lover (a term I thought had gone out of style now that we're a "post-racial society" - ha!ha!) Some people are verbal thugs.

My opponents on Facebook get angry if I even dare to suggest that there are two sides to all these stories because to them, it is all black and white and, yes, the pun is intended.

Oddly enough, it is the ones who are vociferously supportive of the police in the Michael Brown case and were passionately supportive of the wannabe cop in the Trayvon Martin case who were generally, equally as militantly supportive of the militia in the Cliven Bundy affair....the very militia that threatened to shoot federal agents if they didn't back off and leave poor downtrodden Bundy alone.

So, which is it? Do they make their judgments on the fly based on who is on the other side of the police? Black kid in hoodie versus cops = thug versus cops.  Old white scofflaw versus cops = upstanding citizen versus thugs.

Well, it does shorten the process of deciding the merits of a case. Identify the thug and you automatically know which side you're on.