Words Have Power
We can weaponize our words or we can use them to create community.
I can smell the anger out there these days. And I certainly read it on social media. I worry about that. I worry that we're allowing the anger and polarization to metastisize into something that won't easily heal and may, in fact, be fatal. Other problems have stealthily been developing into crises while we've been occupied by Covid-19: environmental disasters, wars, and social justice issues, to name a few. Solving these issues or even mitigating their effect will require cooperation and community. Instead, alongside Covid's legacy of death and chronic illness, I fear we will be left with the collateral damage from our treatment of others.
As a writer and editor, I believe that words matter. I spend a great deal of time searching for precise, concise ways of expressing myself. So, it's not surprising that I have been focusing on how we are destroying relationships by our weaponization of language. Especially, but not only, on social media, people are flinging insults about, seemingly without considering their long-term, big picture impact.
Social media is notorious for its free-ranging vitriol. But, in my feeds at least, the rhetoric has become nastier as the pandemic has worn on. For instance, let's talk about the term “anti-vaxxer,” which has evolved from its early roots into an expression of frustration, disdain, and anger against those the users think are prolonging the pandemic. Vaccine hesitancy related to childhood illnesses has been around for a long time and history shows anti-vaccination activism dating back to the 1800s. But now “anti-vaxxer” is being used as a blanket insult targeting those who, for a variety of reasons, are not vaccinated against Covid and/or who disagree with forced vaccination via government mandates.
The problem is that when we use it as a perjorative against those we feel are endangering us, we make many incorrect assumptions and generalizations about large groups of people, their beliefs, life situations, health, histories, and knowledge.
I've learned a thing or two about that sort of labeling, judging, and dismissing people and things we don't understand in my work as an advocate of school-free learning for close to 50 years now. I recognize the use of “anti-vaxxer” as stereotyping that also ignores whether or not individuals define themselves in that way.
To be clear, we're not talking about a monolithic group of morons, selfish individualists, gun-toting individualists, racists, misogynists, angry idiots who don't believe in science, conspiracy theorists, or uneducated mouth-breathers (among the least offensive terms taken from my recent social media feeds.) What those who fling the anti-vaxxer insults seem not to understand or accept is that there are multiple reasons for vaccination decisions. These include health concerns both endorsed and not by a physician, cultural or religious preferences, prior negative – often devastating – experiences with vaccines or the medical system, and skepticism about the safety or efficacy of this particular one. Personal and cultural history leading to vaccine reluctance is also evident among Black people and First Nations communities in the U.S. and Canada. Many Covid vaccine skeptics and refusers have done some research (and, yes, I know this is also a controversial term), wading through the muck of information and disinformation, reading and listening and chatting about the science with some of the many skeptical medical professionals, weighing the risks to others as well as to themselves, and often putting themselves at risk of one illness to avoid another for themselves or a family member.
As it happens, some of the shamed do their own shaming. The word “sheeple” is sometimes used to describe a person who just got their booster. And, last night, I saw the term “cabbage farter” used.
I don't condone any of these labels or the intent behind them. Nor do I claim to know any specific truth about how this pandemic began or is unfolding. However, I do understand where the destructive behaviour comes from. After two years of chaos, lockdowns, isolation, illness, and death, we're all tired, stressed, and living with uncertainty, and disillusionment. Public health policies have messed with the normal human interaction that we all need. That alienation, allied with the fear around catching or sharing the virus, and the often bewildering amount of news, spin, and opinion in our media (more on that in a future post), is contributing to the anger that allows one group of people to feel justified insulting and shunning other groups. (And, of course, it's also escalated various sorts of mental health problems, domestic and other kinds of violence, and more.)
So, aside from trying to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe from illness and death from all causes, let's not forget there are other important issues – some already in plain sight and others to be discovered – requiring our attention. Once the pandemic's urgency has passed, we will need all hands on deck in our communities. We'll need open-mindedness, trust, collaboration, compassion, humility, tolerance of diversity, a sense of social justice, the ability to learn from disagreement, and many other things that we're allowing the pandemic to destroy. I wish we could all take a deep breath and find ways to be kinder to and more tolerant of those with whom we disagree.