Changing the Narrative Through Language

In conversation with my mother, we began talking, as we often do, about politics. She related to me a story about how at a dinner party recently the topic of Ted Cruz came up and how he was receiving support from some of the more conservative members of the dinner party. One of the things that they raised as a positive issue was his opposition to gay marriage, in spite of the fact that, apparently, there were several gay or lesbian friends at this party. That alone seemed pretty uncool, but tact isn’t the point here. My mother’s response was that it isn’t the place of the government to police lifestyle options or the choice of homosexuals to publicly live that way. This is where I put the breaks on the conversation. Lifestyle options and choice are not matters that truly, empirically figure into the equation of whether homosexual, transgender or bisexual individuals are deserving of the same rights and privileges of their sexually straight counterparts, by which I mean fellow citizens. These words are linguistic tools that actually hamper the progress of our understanding by being misleading and, ultimately serve to enforce the stereotypes that the Far Right uses to suppress rights of individuals. As long as the narrative remains unchanged, progress does not occur.

In actuality, sexual preference is rarely, if ever, something that can be considered a choice. It may be a choice whether to suppress the natural desire, rather than pursue it. But following one’s natural desires is, quite simply, the natural thing to do. If we are all going to be honest, then we must admit that there are times we will suppress urges simply because we know that they are objectively wrong. This may include punching someone in the face for annoying you with an insensitive comment. It may include taking something you want from another person without asking, such as that sandwich the other person is about to eat or the gun in that guy’s holster. Suppressing these urges, as well as urges of rape or molestation, murder or even spitting, are generally considered smart options. Following through on every urge would be, in many cases, downright evil, considering that we (mostly) have the human ability to control ourselves and think about what we are doing. But suppressing a sexual preference that would not harm anyone or require any non-interested party to participate, well, that sounds like a cruel punishment.

For this reason, it is very clear that language such as lifestyle options and choice should be stricken from the discussion of LBGT rights and issues. Folks that don’t fit into the “traditional” box of human sexual behavior, if there every really was such a thing, should be considered for what they really are: human beings with sexual identities, just like the rest of us. One should not even refer to them as being defined by sexual preferences, because that term also is not entirely accurate, as it implies a fluid and potentially moldable identity. But we all have preferences, we all like something more than something else and there are certainly levels to everything in this manner. How we identify ourselves, straight or otherwise, is a personal matter and should not be a matter of public policy. It is also something that we cannot and perhaps should not endeavor to change.

I use this same line of reasoning when I discuss why the term survivor should not be used to describe cancer patients. That word implies that the patient should have died, but somehow didn’t. It is a negative, couched in a very precious term designed to imply empowerment, but it doesn’t. Rather, it continues to tell the narrative that cancer kills, that cancer is a death sentence, and that it is virtually impossible to live with. Modern medical science tells another story, however; while many forms of cancer are still deadly more often than not, the most common forms of cancer are becoming consistently more livable, often treated now as chronic illness rather than terminal disease. More and more cancers are curable, as well. But calling people living with cancer survivors undermines the reality of medical treatment and predisposes cancer patients to a negative view of their odds. This negative view, in turn, may well make them less likely to be proactive, it may make them fear the treatments that could save their lives or keep them healthy and it generates a popular sense of fear and foreboding about cancer in general.

Language is powerful. Yet most people do not understand its power. You need look no further than Twitter feeds and Facebook posts to see how easy it is to miscommunicate, misconstrue or unduly inflate an issue through a lack of communication power brought on by the misuse or misunderstanding of words. Twitter should have had the opposite effect, and in an educated society with some sense of responsibility instilled in our writers (by which I mean every one of us with the means to put words to paper or screen), communication should have become clearer because of the 140 character constraint. How well can this statement be made? How clearly can I get my point across within the limited number of characters at my disposal? Yet this is not the dominant mode in this day of instant communication without taking a breath or forming a cogent thought. It is not a failing of the technology, it is a failing of policy makers, of politicians who emphasize testing over critical thinking, of poor standards in teachers brought on by undervaluing their importance to society, of a lack of oversight from parents who themselves are the product of a floundering system. It is the fault of a media-driven society with no impetus to encourage improvement among the general population because the lower the lowest-common-denominator is, the easier it is to profit.

To fix the system, to fix virtually any dialogue of merit, we need to use the proper language. And this language needs to be honest, real language, not political doublespeak or sound bytes that deliberately obfuscate the issues. It requires consideration and participation from all of us, whether we agree with a position or not, because common ground and understanding cannot be found unless we are all primed for that understanding through a common language in the first place.

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