Words

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.

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