January 17, 2018

Just so we are clear from the outset… this is not a devotion or a “Christian” writing.

Over 40 years ago now I worked at a drug counseling center while serving in the U.S. Navy. Back then there were too many guys returning from Vietnam who had gotten caught up in serious drug use.  And of course there were many who had not been to Vietnam who also got caught up in the same.  At the center where I worked we did two things:  We evaluated drug users to determine the best treatment plan for them.  And we offered counseling and small groups.  As part of the evaluation process we showed a video called “Chalk Talk” done by a Catholic Priest named Father Martin.  Father Martin was a recovering alcoholic and that’s the subject of the video.  It was very well done for its day.  (You can still find it on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7T5stQQFQg.)  I remember Father Martin going to great lengths to define “Alcoholism.”  Frankly I wouldn’t have thought it that difficult until one tries to put boundaries around a definition.

I didn’t really agree with Father Martin’s definition but I didn’t have a better one. He essentially said, “You are an alcoholic if alcohol has caused you problems in your life.”  He went on to tell a story about a man who got drunk once then had an accident that killed his entire family.  “He is an alcoholic,” said Father Martin.

He also discussed how alcoholics define the word. Basically alcoholism is anything they are not.  “If you drink more than a 6 pack of beer a day, you’re an alcoholic.”  That from those who stop at 6.  “You are an alcoholic if you start drinking in the morning or early afternoon.”  That coming from those who only drink at night.  “You are an alcoholic if you drink hard liquor.”  That from beer or wine drinkers.  And it goes on from there.  The point is that defining our terms is essential to treating and confronting issues.  If we don’t know what we’re talking about how can we progress toward resolution?

Years ago I heard a well-known speaker say this: “If you are white and you were born in the U.S.A. you ARE a racist because it is in the very air we breathe.”  I should add that the speaker was white.  Honestly I don’t necessarily disagree with what he said.  My only question is this: Define “racism.”  I don’t say that in a combative way.  Or even to avoid the issue.  I am seriously asking for a definition so that we all know what we’re talking about.

I had the opportunity to make a few observations for the speaker to address. One was this:  “When we use the term ‘racist’ to define ‘everyone’ from those who are white and born in this country, but are doing all they can to overcome the discrimination and disparity between whites and other minorities to those who wear white sheets and burn crosses in people’s front yards… well, that doesn’t really further the discussion.  What it really does is make people defensive and any reasonable conversation ends there.”  I went on to say that someone needs to invent some new language to help define the boundaries, i.e., a class 1 racist vs. a class 2 racist… Or a chronic racist vs. an “unpremeditated” racist… or whatever.  To my knowledge, no new language has been introduced to help bring clarity to this very serious matter. So we continue to struggle with racial resolution partly because we have no agreed upon words thus we have no idea what we’re talking about.  It’s really not much different than trying to get directions from someone who speaks Russian and only Russian.  They can do a lot of pointing and gesturing but in the end, we will not get where we want to go.

Let me apply this to a REALLY divisive issue.  In recent months President Trump has been accused of being “racist.”  If the speaker I mentioned above is correct, then yes of course he is “racist” because all whites in this country are!  And do you also see how this then doesn’t mean anything?  Those in the press who are calling him a racist are racist themselves.  Those who are opposed to him as president and call him a racist are racist as well.  Those who simply despise him and want him out of office are racist also.  I’m not supporting, defending or accusing anyone of anything other than using language that is meaningless.  I suspect when he is called a racist, it is as a certain type of racist.  But what is it? WE NEED NEW LANGUAGE!

The same idea applies to the recent revelations regarding “sexual harassment.” I agree that many deplorable things have been done to women and that men need to be held accountable for them.  But what things?  Can someone help me by defining what “sexual harassment” is?  Not unlike racism or alcoholism some examples are no brainers.  But what I have heard recently is that on some level sexual harassment is “in the eye of the beholder.”  In other words anyone can define it any way they like.  That doesn’t help!  If we can’t define it we can’t very effectively address it.

Sadly there are few forums where we can discuss these things without fear of being accused of something. I’m not trying to make any political statements or social statements here.  I am simply trying to say that we cannot talk about difficult, sensitive issues if we do not have common language.

Years ago, Ellen and I went on a “Marriage Encounter” weekend. Marriage Encounter teaches a form of communicating for married couples.  Basically, you write letters to each other without assuming the other knows what you mean by the terms you use.  The very first thing they had us do was write to our spouse and define very clearly and specifically what we meant when we said we “loved them,” i.e., what does “love” mean in that context?  It was very difficult and very helpful.

So the next time you hear the words “Alcoholic,” or “Racist,” or “Sexual harassment,” ask yourself this question: “How are they defining or using that term?”  And you may want to ask how you use it as well.


4 thoughts on “Words

  1. I think this is a much needed commentary. I wish you could put it in a newspaper, because so many people are using words that really have no real meaning except to the person saying them. Great Job!

  2. Bill, I’d love to discuss this with you sometime. As someone who works on a daily basis with women who are escaping abusive men, and with a staff that is predominantly female, I have some ideas about what the boundaries are that men should respect so as to not be accused of sexual harassment. I think it is simpler than many of us men like to believe.

    And as someone who works with a predominantly minority population, and as a white man who has married into a black family, I have some ideas about how to define racism. Plus, I think there are a lot of very good books and articles that help create a shared platform of terms and ideas so black and white people can talk about the same things in a friendly way.

    The main thing a white person needs to do is to educate himself/herself by reading books by African American authors, past and present; and we have to enable ourselves to imagine walking in their shoes, experience their lives as we expect them to experience ours.

    One primary ingredient of the Twelve Steps for alcoholics that is universally healthy for everyone to practice is the ability to engage in a “ruthless self-examination”, a willingness to face our weaknesses and deficits, and turn them over to God, and make amends with those we hurt. How many people are ever willing to undergo a ruthless self-examination? And then make amends? And yet it is the key to sobriety for the alcoholic, and to serenity for the person in long term recovery. I think it is fundamentally Christian, too, and should be a part of our spiritual discipline. If we used this same spiritual discipline to examine our beliefs and behaviors toward people of different genders and races, we would make huge strides forward and we would find that our tendency to need to fly into defensiveness would slowly vanish like a bad cold. This same discipline leads to us to a profound sense of God’s presence, and through that, a boundless joy.

    By the way, if anyone is unclear as to whether Trump is a racist (assuming that person pays attention to the news), then that person has a problem. Trump’s words and behavior define him as racist on a daily basis. History will not judge Trump lightly, nor will it judge Trump’s defenders lightly, for all the ways that he demeans his office, enriches himself, spreads falsehoods and deepens the divide between the rich and the poor. We know that the Bible has a lot to say about how we treat the poor.

    Love you, brother.


  3. There’s almost too much in this posting. I want to address it all succinctly but can’t. I appreciate your post as it has generated even more thoughts and ideas.
    I consider myself a racist, not simply because I am white, but for a wide variety of many things that I have spent my life trying to overcome. Kind of like, but not exactly like, a “recovering” alcoholic; I work at being less racist every day. And I don’t bristle and become defensive at the term, because I know how I am defining it for myself. But I understand how others might.
    Definitions for words and terms are important and necessary, but they are also quite fluid and ambiguous, at times.
    What is helpful in defining words are examples. The more examples you have of what a word means, the closer you get to understanding its definition.
    So much more to say, my mind is spinning faster than I can thumb the letters on my phone.
    But let’s ALL continue a dialogue.

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