Words still mean things. Well, I guess they still do.
Lawyers spend hours and hours going over contracts and legal documents for their clients, making sure every word is correct. They know that a single word left out, misplaced or incorrectly used could cost the people they represent dearly. Advertisers know the right word in an ad could increase sales. The correct words are important.
This past week we’ve been hearing on the news stories about children being separated from their parents due to their parents being held by authorities for crossing the U.S. border illegally. A few years ago, those parents would be classified as “illegal aliens.” Over time, the term “illegal alien” became “illegal immigrant.”
Then, back in 2014, Associated Press Executive Editor, Katheen Carroll, stated that the AP will no longer use the word, “illegal immigrant.” According to Carroll, the AP stylebook eliminated the term, “illegal immigrant,” because it might “label” those who are in this country illegally as being “illegal.” Then what will be the proper term to use? Jay Leno, then “The Tonight Show” host, had an idea. He said, on the show that week, “And in a groundbreaking move, the Associated Press, the largest news gathering outlet in the world, will no longer use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ That is out. No longer ‘illegal immigrant.’ They will now use the phrase ‘undocumented Democrat.’”
The conflict between having compassion for children being separated from their parents, and carrying out the rule of law so that there can be secure borders is not easy to reconcile. I was reminded of how the term has evolved when hearing those news reports last week. Almost every report now refers to those children and their parents as “migrants,” disregarding whether they are in this country legally or not. The change in wording from “illegal immigrant” just a few years ago, to “migrant” is interesting.
Those in areas of influence know the power of words. If you can change the words, you can change the narrative. If you can change the narrative, you can change public opinion. And if you can change public opinion, you can get the desired result.
Take, for example, the last presidential election. Jeb Bush became “low energy” Jeb Bush. Ted Cruz became ‘lying” Ted Cruz. And, of course, Hilary Clinton became “crooked” Hilary Clinton. And Donald Trump became President. The choice of words helped change the narrative, which helped influence public opinion, which had a major impact on the outcome.
Probably the more lasting impact of the choice of words is on our culture. Public opinion becomes public action, which eventually becomes its culture. Likewise, the choice of words play a significant role. For example, the divisive abortion debate. One side emphasizes the debate as “pro-life,” while the other says, “pro-choice.” Which word the public accepts defining the debate influences their opinion and affects the outcome of the issue and our culture.
The use of words and our culture really hit home to me in a recently read news article. It was about the use of simple pronouns, like he, she and they. But the implications are not that simple. The very long title for the article written by Susan Knoppow in “USA Today” was, “Please use the right pronoun to describe my non-binary child.” What? Non-binary child? Well, at least I know what a pronoun is.
The first line in the article kind of explains where this is going. Knoppow, who is writing about her child in the article states, “When someone tells me, ‘I’ll just call Miriam ‘she’ because that’s what I’m used to,’ they are passing judgment on my child.” You see, Miriam has decided that she is neither female or male. She is non-binary. (According to Knoppow, I think I just used the wrong pronoun. I’m blaming Mr. Randall Autry, my English teacher back at Clement, for that.)
Knoppow’s explanation of non-binary is, “People who are non-binary use a variety of pronouns, but they/them/their are the most common today. The English language is still figuring this one out. My child (and many other non-binary folks) use they instead of she or he, them instead of her or him, and their instead of hers or his.”
All of this sounds confusing and almost laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. In a few years, will he and she end up being thought as words from an outdated time? Remember, words are used to change the narrative. The narrative is used to change public opinion. Public opinion determines public beliefs and action, which eventually becomes the culture. And, in the end, the culture will affect us all much more than any narrative now being promoted at the U.S.-Mexico border or at the White House.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]