Scary Words

Harry and Annie are still pretty young, but  I find it amusing, and somewhat astounding, that when they refer to “bad words”, they tend to be refering to words like “stupid”, “dumb” and “idiot”, or on the extreme end, words like “damn” and “hell”.  I’m sure part of it is verbal restraint on the part of Alissa and I.  We’re far from perfect, but in terms of language, we’re well within FCC boundaries.

 

Still, I don’t think our kids are that sheltered.  It’s only happened a couple of times, but we’ve let them see some movies that could not air on network TV with all the dialog in tact. It’s hard to avoid, actually.  Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America, The Sandlot and even E.T., while good movies do have bits of language, and we’ve let them see those movies. Our strategy has been to just let the words go by and not draw attention to them unless the kids do. And that’s when we get a teaching/parenting opportunity.

 

But if Harry still thinks “the F word” is “fart”, I’m not going to enlighten him prematurely.

 

Truth be told, I’m fascinated by the whole “swear word” concept.  I generally don’t use them, but mainly for the sake of social convention.  But that convention is more of a curiosity to me.  I mean, why is one word that is used to describe feces acceptable, while another word gets you an FCC fine if you fail to censor it on network TV.  That’s one example, but you can apply the that question to pretty much any of the banned words.

 

I’m sure I could do the research and find these answers, but it’s not a high enough priority to fill my browser history with the search terms I would need to get the answers I’m only mildly curious about.

 

However, there are words that I am fearful of because they do have power and consequences.

 

The other day, Harry and I watched 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Jackie Robinson himself.  It’s a pretty Disney-esque account of Robinson’s struggles as he broke baseball’s color barrier.

 

I explained to Harry about The Negro Leagues (and corrected his pronunciation because he is in that phase where he applies all the pronunciation rules he’s learning, but doesn’t really get the concept of the exception; he was pronouncing the “eg” sound like “egg”). I explained to him that negro is a loaded word because of our nation’s history and that it’s best to avoid using it unless you’re discussing something like The Negro Leagues.

 

Later in the movie however, a bunch of klansmen in the stands at some southern stadium are being their cowardly selves, and they let fly with a racial slur.  That racial slur, the one you would expect klansmen to use.

 

It was one of those parenting moments where you cringe and wait to see if your child took note of it.  As the scene was an interaction in the stands and not on the field, Harry gave no indication that he even heard it, so I relaxed a little.  But it still scares me.

 

What if he did hear it?  I know he would never use it maliciously.  But it’s one of those words where, short of reading it in a historical context, the mistaken use of it could have real consequences. Even used out of simple ignorance, it can have consequences.

 

If one of my kids, having heard it in a movie about someone overcoming racism,  were to let it out in conversation, particularly where Alissa or I are not there to pounce, I could imagine it, at best engendering suspicion.

 

Where did he hear that word?  Is that how her parents talk at home?  They don’t seem racist, but is it all an act?

 

I’d rather have them drop and F-bomb than a racial or ethnic slur.

 

I know that this could sound self-protective. It probably is; I try to be aware of the damage created by racism and sexism and I try to do my part, from my position of privilege to repair the damage, and it scares me that one word could undo any small measure of good that I may have done.

 

I also know that I could be viewed as bemoaning”political correctness” or whatever we’re calling it these days when we make an effort to make our language more inclusive and less offensive.  That is not the case.  I’ll be the first to admit that there are instances where political correctness can go too far.  I remember a controversy several years back where a politician got in trouble for using a word that sounded like a racial slur but was appropriate to the discussion at hand and had nothing to do with race.  It was a word that isn’t commonly used, so the guy got in hot water because of people’s limited vocabulary.  That’s silly.  Saying that the word “hurricane” is sexist because the first syllable is a homophone for a feminine possessive pronoun, is silly.

 

What’s not silly is being aware of the actual destructive power of actual racial, or ethnic, or religious, or gender-based slurs.  There’s been enough pain and conflict in these areas, that efforts to do little things like not belittle or demean whole groups of people with the words we choose can contribute to healing those wounds, or at least to not making them worse.

 

And what about  teaching our kids?  They need to learn history, and a key element of learning history is using primary sources.  That means that they are going to come across words that make us cringe.  And sometimes they will be too obvious to not notice, as they should be. I can only hope that I will be in a position to teach them that there are words that, by their history, are vile and hateful, so much so that they should make people of good will cringe.


Still, the fact that the study of history will expose us to words that make us cringe does not mean that we should not engage in that study any more than the fact that stories have villains   means we should not read the stories.  After all, to know our progress, and to hope for further progress requires an understanding of what we are progressing from, even if that understanding can be uncomfortable.

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About Andrew

I'm a Christian, American, liberal, geeky, thoughtful, Northwest-transplanted Angeleno husband, father, and pundit who writes about anything he can think of.
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