What’s in a Word?

Bullying. Bigot. Snowflake. Nasty. Leftie. Stuck in the dark ages….

Words and phrases such as these are being thrown around with increasing vigour, often in response to a person stating a belief based on a long-held socially accepted norm, or an opinion that is contrary to the opinion held by the reader. (Afterall, it’s usually only observable on social media – very rarely do you overhear two people shouting at one another, face to face.)

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It has now become almost impossible to state a contrary view in the public square without receiving some form of abusive response, causing many to refrain from entering the square at all. Granted, so much rides on the delivery and context of the original comment, but how have we managed to get to the place where conflicting ideas cannot be acknowledged, tolerated, or held in tension?

To further complicate our ability to achieve this, we are actively changing the meaning of words by their repeated overuse, weakening the value they hold. Some parted ways with their original meaning long ago: awesome, amazing, legend, to name a few.

How many times have we used the word “awesome” to describe a situation or person, but in reality they aren’t actually inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear within us?
They did something helpful or good? Sure. They’re awesome!

And that’s ok – but we must recognise the word’s departure from its old meaning as well as our part in birthing this new creature, leaving us without an adequate linguistic distinction to communicate two very different meanings.

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One such word whose misuse has been frustrating for some time is the term ‘bigot’.

Bigot: a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.

Usually hurled as an insult to shut down an opposing view so as to avoid the need to articulate a better view, the misuse of this word often exposes that exact character flaw within the person using it.

Even more concerning as we continue to step further into this brave new world unfolding before us, is the misuse of the word ‘bullying’.

Bully: a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.

Bullying: to act the bully toward; intimidate; domineer.

Recent online misappropriation of this word surfaced around penalties being applied after families knowingly breached a school uniform policy. Those jolly teachers, enforcing a clearly stated policy. Who do they think they are? Bullies!!!

An important issue for society to grapple with, bullying deserves attention & addressing. That anyone is affected by another person habitually intimidating them is thoroughly disheartening & unacceptable; we must all continue to defend the weaker, the smaller, the helpless… because as much as we try to address bullying behaviours, bullying will never be fully eradicated. Bullies are often hurting & wrestling with something difficult inside themselves.

However, we do vulnerable people no favours by applying the word “bullying” to the wrong context: 

It is not bullying to enforce clearly stated boundaries.

It is not bullying to hold or state a contradictory view.

It is not bullying to want to advance a contradictory view.

If it is bullying for you to simply state an opinion or belief that is different to mine, is that to be considered as offensive as someone who habitually intimidates another person, often to the point that they cave in to a position of surrender? No – they’re two very different things, requiring different descriptive words.

This graphic by Jennifer Astles helps to bestow greater meaning to the spectrum of negative human interaction, at a personal level:

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Indeed, we may think twice before saying something because it’s mean or rude or will cause unnecessary conflict… but the term ‘bullying’ should be reserved only for actual bullying behaviour, lest its use in itself becomes an act of bullying.

Holding the tension

If we want to navigate the unfolding world before us with maturity:

learning from one another,
cooperating with one another,
advancing alongside one another,
thriving in an increasingly challenging environment…

We must be able to separate ideas from identities.

If my identity is tied to an idea, any time that idea is challenged, my personhood will feel challenged.

If my identity is tied to an idea, I will always be looking for validation of that idea before I can begin to accept myself as a valid human being, just as I am.

If my identity is tied to an idea, whenever that idea is scrutinised, criticised, or attacked, I will feel scrutinised, criticised, or attacked.

You matter. I matter. The other, matters.
But we won’t live in that reality if we won’t do the work of separating our identities from ideas. Each influences the other, but neither is tied intrinsically to the other.

As a very good friend of mine once said, “Every me matters.”

Every ‘me’ is equal. But not every idea is equal… and we must commit our ideas to the arena of public thought so that they can be tested and assessed for validity, entirely separate to anyone’s personhood.

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Let’s be brave enough to commit to being ruthless with ideas, and kind with people.
Let’s be big enough to know the difference.

Love and peace.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a Word?

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