As a hospital chaplain, I would accompany physicians as they gave updates to patients and family members. Often, they used terminology that needed translation from medical to vernacular. On one occasion, I observed a neurosurgeon speaking to the family of a patient who had experienced head trauma in the motorcycle accident. The doctor explained that the patient’s eyes were “fixed and dilated”. The family responded to this message with visible relaxation. They thought they had just heard good news. The patient’s eyes were “fixed”, which for most people, would mean corrected or working. However, the doctor was trying to convey a dire report: it was unlikely that the patient would recover. The doctor’s message failed. The intent was lost in the words used.
Words are important–what we say and how we say things have a huge influence on people. Anne Murphy wrote her This I Believe essay on paying attention to the words we choose and use. Anne’s essay below is a reminder to be precise with your verbiage and ponder your message from the recipient’s perspective.
For many years, I have been reflecting on the power of words and visual images. More to the point, I have been thinking about the social impact of words and visual images. I believe that words and visual images are critical elements in shaping how people form opinions, ideas and cultural attitudes in their societal circles.
Tools of communication — words and visual images — can shape or mis-shape people’s reality for years to come. They are built on underlying attitudes that people hold and they can build up or tear down. We appreciate hearing words of encouragement and healing and praise and these words reinforce certain behaviors – behaviors that have a positive impact on society. We bear the wounds too, of words and sometimes images that intimidate and are hurtful. The words we use to describe a situation or a person influences others’ perceptions.
Images too are powerful and sustainable. They have an impact on lives, livelihoods and living conditions. So many visual images seep into our very being and have a social impact on how we perceive the world around us. Like words, the images we see can influence our perceptions of the world around us – sometimes beneficially, often not so much. Some images can motivate us to action for good. Other images contribute to negativism and violence.
Here are some examples that help explain my concerns about the negative impacts of words and visual images. Persistent use of masculine pronouns and job titles (like fireman, mailman, etc.) continues to promote sexism in our society – and we hardly notice it. We often use phrases such as “the poor”, “the homeless”, “unskilled laborers” etc. all of which I contend promotes a kind of “classism” – and we hardly notice that. Phrases such as “dodged the bullet”, “shot in the dark”, “blow them away”, “pull out the big guns”, “making bullet points on a report”, etc. makes violent language an everyday occurrence – and we become inured to the weight of those words.
The visual images that most bothered me years ago when I was becoming more aware of the feminist movement, were the roles assigned to women on tv programs, especially sitcoms. I rarely watch tv now so am not able to comment intelligently on the status of tv programming today – but I have a strong suspicion that there are still too many instances of story lines that promote sexism, militarism, racism, classism, etc. For me, advertising/marketing is the most egregious offender of the use of visual images that have a harmful social impact. For example, I find almost all clothing ads offensive, especially those that employ young children and teens, because they seem to focus on and use sexualization, evidenced by the poses and facial look of the models.
Of course, for every action there is a reaction – and I want to be the first to admit the positive power of visual images and of words, especially those that promote justice, healing, encouragement, etc. The passage of the voting rights act in 1965, much of the civil rights legislation in the decade of the 60’s, the anti-war movement during the tragedy on Vietnam, the help afforded the children of Biafra are examples of how visual images projected around the world through television in the early years of tv and the social media campaigns against injustice in this 21st century all had an incredible impact on society and motivated people of good will to remedy the social problems they portrayed.
I write about this today in the hope that each of us will just start to notice; that we will become increasingly aware of our own use of words and images and those around us; that perhaps we can practice filtering our words to eliminate those that are offensive and biased and promote violence; that hopefully, we will invest the time and effort into recognizing the impact of our own words and put into practice the use of Just language.
I believe that I have a responsibility to help create a world that promotes love and peace and does not glorify violence in any form, and that the language we use – words and visual images – is a critically important component in the promotion of violence as well as an element in fostering non-violence – and a role I can accept is to call out the use of words and visual images that do harm. I can be intentional in the choice of my language and teach others about the impact of their choices of words and images. This is something I feel strongly about and something that I believe.