After a hard landing following a parachute jump, I couldn’t feel or move my legs. With lengthy surgery and rehab, I regained movement and sensation—not quite as good as before, but better than expected post-injury. After moving to California, I became a patient at the Spinal Cord Injury Center (SCIC) at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. During a tour of the facility, I used the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” My guide firmly corrected my word usage. He explained: “The injury limits; the wheelchair liberates.” It opened my eyes to a different perspective—same reality, different approach. Without the accessibility provided by devices such as a rolling chair, automotive hand controls, walking sticks, or other ingenious inventions, it would be much harder for people with disabilities to get around. For me, this was a powerful lesson on the importance of words and the situatedness of perspective. For those who need one, a wheelchair brings freedom.
The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their rightful names. Chinese proverb
Accidental implies unavoidable. But what if something is predictable and preventable? Is that still an accident? Knowing the likelihood of something occurring changes perspective. People don’t plan involvement in incidents, but certain circumstances make the likelihood greater. Statistics indicate that cars crash on a regular basis. Injuries or death are common occurrences, even if unplanned. Most states require insurance to pay for damage from collisions. If a person drives without a seatbelt and hits a tree, the probably outcome is getting launched, with the expectation of injuries, if the person survives. Laws of science are morally neutral, not value judgments. An unrestrained body flying through the air is going to land and it will probably hurt. When a bullet hits something, it makes a hole. More volatile storms result from increased temperatures. That’s physics. Actions lead to consequences. Moral judgments might arise from other factors. Was a driver speeding or texting? Was a pistol loaded and unsecured in a home with children? Are rising temperatures correlated with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which humans have the ability to limit?
The branch of linguistics concerned with meaning is called semantics. For better or worse, what we say and how we say it can make a difference. I observed a discussion after the Helsinki summit. Event or summit are relatively neutral ways to refer to the US president’s meeting. Other words, carry more emotional weight. The president has called the meeting a success; others have more harsh appraisals for the performance. Political leanings affect how a person perceives something (e.g. 68% of those who identify as Republicans approve of the summit with Russia). Not everyone shares the same perspective. And while words matter, the tone of voice and body language also convey messages.
Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. Buddha
I didn’t expect the outcome I experienced on Sicily drop zone, but I knew what I was getting into when I jumped. My pay statement had a line item for “hazardous duty pay.” And it was.
Words have power. Handle with care.
© Joan S Grey, 19 JUL 2018
IndexCardCure™: Words matter