Words Matter


When I was a lad in High School we had a course called “Words are important.” A lot of heat has been generated without a lot of light, by people on both sides of the dispute about vaccines. I have been as guilty of using improper language as anyone else. It is time for me to do better. It is important to choose the right words if we want to communicate effectively with others.

First of all, I must learn not to refer to people by one of their characteristics. People are complex. None of us are defined by one issue and none of us like to be defined by one issue. For example, we should not refer to a person as “a diabetic.”  Rather such a person should be referred to as “a person who has diabetes.”  That might seem like a minor change. It is not minor. It is significant. There have been recent studies that show by using the proper expression, which recognizes the other as a person who happens to have an illness like diabetes, that will be appreciated by the person being referred to. Such communication is much more effective because it is more respectful. In fact, according to Dr. Garfinkel, a frequent CBC radio commentator on the pandemic,  the difference can be striking. The data suggests that reducing a person to one issue can have a powerful impact on that person. It can reinforce bias or stereotypes that ought to be avoided because it amplifies resistance. If we want to help, we should do it right. No one likes to be reduced.  We should be smart if we want to make a difference.

Similarly, one should not refer to someone as a schizophrenic, or criminal, or anti-vaxxer.  A person should be referred to as a person who has schizophrenia, or a person who has committed a crime, or a person who is reluctant to take a vaccine.

Calling a person an anti-vaxxer or schizophrenic or criminal reduces a person to that one issue. It does not respect that the person is complex and cannot be reduced to one issue. If you want to communicate successfully with such a person you respect them first and foremost as a person. Labels can be damaging and are rarely helpful.

My bad. I have been guilty of this mistake. Words are important because respect is important. Words matter. I will try to do better Starting now.


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