Black Words Matter More

Of course all wordBlack Words wordclouds matter. Every word in every language has a specific meaning, and when we speak or write we choose our words carefully to ensure our message resonates and is understood. But black words truly matter more. Why? Because I’m referring to the dictionary definition of black as “full of anger or hatred.”

Black words are purposely chosen for maximum impact. They cut deep, linger in the air, and endure in one’s consciousness. I’m sure several examples have already popped into your mind – perhaps the N-word, some misogynist adjectives and nouns describing women, or ethnic slurs that span multiple continents. But those black words are easy to recognize and avoid. Those are not the black words I’m most concerned about.

The most dangerous and insidious black words are those that appear innocuous. Words whose denotation is factual and reasonable but whose connotations represent a fomenting cauldron of exclusion, repression, and hate. Those connotations are communicated via the broad context of place and purpose, the speaker’s tone of voice, or the words that immediately precede or follow.

“Refugee,” “illegals,” and “Muslim” are the best current examples of how disparate the literal meaning of a word can be to its implication. Refugee used to mean the “huddled masses” who came to the U.S. as their last best hope. Now it’s become a form of NIMBY, fear-mongering nationalism. Illegals used to refer to people who were “in a country without official authorization.” One could argue it still means that today, but it also means dark-skinned criminals and rapists who are stealing American jobs and destroying our culture. And Muslim, of course, literally refers to followers of Islam. As used by reactionary zealots, however, it means 1.6 billion non-Christians intent on death and destruction to all things non-Islamic.

At this point it’s only fair to give equal time to the black words often employed by the more liberal side of the political spectrum. “Evangelical” is defined as a wing of Christianity that views the Bible as the literal word of God. Now it’s often used to demean Southerners and Midwesterners who are pro-life and against gay marriage. The term “1%” refers to the top one-percent of earners. Today it’s spit out as an epithet for a culture of greed and corruption. And “climate deniers” refers to people who do not believe the earth is warming and/or do not believe it’s caused by human activity. As used by many on the left, however, it means anyone who receives campaign contributions from the Koch brothers and/or hails from an energy-producing region of the country.

Martin Luther King Jr. told us, “Racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide.” Today’s corollary is this: “Black words are evil because their ultimate logic is fear, loathing, disrespect, and oppression.” Black words are sometimes delivered with a wink and a nod. Sometimes with a smirk or Cheshire grin. And almost always with a clear and present understanding of the inference the speaker is hoping to engender. Black words serve as a proselytizing shorthand that allow one to quickly backtrack and take shelter beneath the refuge of the literal meaning.

No one can know for sure exactly what resides in a person’s heart when he or she uses black words. I’m tempted to suggest “no one can be sure except for the speaker,” but I don’t believe that’s always the case. The first time someone turns “Mexican” or “born-again” into an insult, it’s certainly intentional. Over time, however, it simply becomes part of the vernacular. The surprising becomes commonplace. The overt becomes nuanced. People become desensitized to the feelings and interpretations of themselves and others. It quickly becomes a mixed metaphor of vicious circles, slippery slopes, and rabbit holes with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Black words matter today more than ever. In what we say or write. At home. In the workplace. In the community. We are what we say.

Guess I’m a “Trans-Genre” Writer

StillCounting_w10155_300I recently had a new novel accepted by a publisher. When people ask about the book, they usually want to know three things: the title, the plot, and the genre. My response to the first two questions comes fast and easy, but I stumble on the third. Part of the issue is that I hate labels of any kind. I think they’re simplistic and limiting, but that’s not the overriding reason for my hesitation. I feel like I can’t give a simple answer to the question. I have to explain, equivocate and, sometimes, evade outright.

Here’s the problem. My book has been categorized by the publisher as “women’s fiction” – also known as chick-lit. I’m a guy. I’m not a big brawny guy by anyone’s standards, but I am a genuine American male who loves football, drinks whiskey, and confesses to occasionally peeing in the shower. So the admission that I’ve written a chick-lit novel is more than a little disconcerting – to me and the recipient of that information.

Rather than surrender to the chick-lit label, my fallback approach is to analogize. “Remember Erich Segal’s Love Story? It’s kind of like that.” Or “It’s about male-female relationships.” Or “It’s like a James Bond movie without the villains, chase scenes and explosions.” Each of these tends to elicit blank stares so I ultimately have to use the women’s fiction label and refer to contemporary authors like Nicholas Sparks. The blank stares often turn to smirks or sheepish eye rolls. I usually smile and shrug and, for that, I should be ashamed.

I’ve long espoused the tenet that writers should write about what they know and write the kind of books they like to read. So here’s what I know. Love is the most transcendent of human emotions – and the least understood. It’s driven by chemical, physical, intellectual and spiritual attractions (though not necessarily in that order). Love is usually front and center during our moments of deepest despair and rapturous joy. Like most people, I’ve experienced both extremes. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve shouted and whispered. I’ve begged for and offered forgiveness for transgressions real or imagined. I’ve pondered whether it was better to love or be loved. I’ve wondered whether my experience of love was different from or the same as everyone else’s. And at the most fundamental level, I’ve long wanted to better recognize and appreciate every nuance of what Freddie Mercury called that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

What I know also drives what I read. I’ve loved books and libraries since I first learned to decipher the alphabet. I read for pleasure, but I also read to learn; and it’s a hallelujah moment when I can combine the two. Many of my hallelujah reading moments have been delivered by books that fall into the chick-lit genre. Books like Eat, Pray, Love; The Rosie Project; The Bridges of Madison County; and The Best of Me. The cynical might question what one could possibly learn from an Elizabeth Gilbert book. The more open-minded will understand that our lives revolve around people and relationships – especially those relationships defined by romantic love and heartfelt bonds. I find that chick-lit books offer a petri dish of love’s complications, encumbrances, and possibilities. In the process they can provide rare insight into the mysteries of love, the arc of heartbreak and renewal, and the secret of successful lifelong commitments.

It’s often stated that people read history to better understand the present. People read chick-lit books about relationships to better understand their own. I’m in that camp. Proudly.

 

YOWO – You Only Write Once

As a writer I’once upon a timeve been fascinated by the controversy regarding the discrepancies and potential falsehoods in Ben Carson’s biographical writings and speeches. Dr. Carson is hardly the first politician to embellish, misrepresent or fabricate the “truth.” What fascinates me is the increasingly common and truly shameless audacity of denying what one has previously stated – regardless of whether it was in writing, presented orally, or captured on video. These are not anecdotal, he-said/she-said differences in memory – they constitute a blatant disregard for the inherent meaning and lasting impact of one’s words.

Words do indeed have specific meanings. Except for the subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses that fill the coffers of the legal set, most words and sentences are not subject to multiple interpretations. They mean what they mean – and if you’re not sure, you can look it up in a dictionary. That’s the very basis of human language – the ability to communicate to and be understood by large numbers of people.

Now it’s certainly true that one’s beliefs and opinions can change over time. That’s a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a natural consequence of gaining additional knowledge, insight, and life experience. However, you cannot deny having espoused those previous beliefs and opinions – especially in a digital world where our words and images can theoretically last forever. Instead, suck it up, attest to your previous utterances, and explain how and why your thoughts and opinions have evolved.

From a writer’s standpoint, none of this is new or problematic. The durability of our words is something we long for. It’s the Holy Grail of writing. We yearn for readers to devour and dissect our writing. That’s why we write. And it’s why I’ve never heard of a writer who denied his/her previous works. Some may disparage their earlier work as immature or amateurish. Others go so far as to write “popular” fiction under a pseudonym so as not to devalue their more “literary” work. But none denies having written the words that bear their name.

In the ethics portion of an MBA class, I used to advise my students to consider one thing before speaking or acting: how would you feel if your words or actions were featured on the front page of The New York Times? How would your spouse or parents feel? Your boss or colleagues? Your children or grandchildren? If any of those scenarios sparked pangs of conscience, then you probably should say or do something different.

Writers adhere to the YOWO (You Only Write Once) mindset. Dr. Carson et al should do the same.