Words matter, a lot

President* Trump,

Last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I realized that I closed out yesterday’s letter to you in a highly problematic way, one that betrays my implicit racial biases that, unfortunately, run parallel to the WP editors I called out earlier in the week. Here is the offending text:

“This tree has fallen – far too many bodies have fallen, far too many have been crushed –…”

Since I’m sure you won’t see how I messed up, I’ll make it plain: it’s not ok that any bodies have fallen or that anyone has been crushed under the boot of systemic racism. By saying “far too many” the implication is that there is some acceptable number of losses that just have to be chalked up to the price of doing business, like your administration decided when it came to opening the country up for business when covid-19 is still running rampant through any of our communities. It’s essentially a lazy and harmful way of trying to convey the weight of the losses and the enormity of the problems.

I know this framing is the default, but as the person who commented on my WP comment said the other day – racism is so baked into our system that even the anti-racists can’t get it right. We humans have been programmed to devalue one another’s lives, especially the lives of those we’ve been programmed to see as “other” or not like ours, and with this programming we aren’t generally moved when a handful of people die needlessly or violently. It’s true that we are also apt to numb out when massive numbers of people die needlessly or violently (or at least I do), but we still seem to feel the need to invoke the masses when we’re advocating change, as if a single person’s death at the hands of the police, at the hands of their husband, as a result of medical neglect just isn’t bad enough to get a rise out of us. Yes, I know that these things are happening every minute of every day and that there is no way for mere mortals to take them all in, let alone respond to them somehow. I do get this.

And yet, I know I’ve allowed myself to use language (obviously) that perpetuate a dangerous attitude that simultaneously discounts the harms and injustices perpetrated against individuals and that allows me to be off the hook for doing anything about such harms and injustices because there are so very many, as in, I can’t possibly address them all so why bother trying to address any?

In light of my strong belief that words matter and how we use them matters very much, and in the interest of trying to find better ways to convey dismay, distress, and outrage over the ongoing disregard of each precious work of art that is each one’s life, I’m going to try again here.

“This tree has fallen – it’s crushed countless precious individuals with names and quirks and dreams – but these families are turning their grief and pain for their fallen loved ones into a gigantic nurse log (look it up) that’s helping nurture a new way forward that will leave behind the old constricting, suffocating paradigm.”

May we use language in ways that safeguard and honor each one’s dignity and preciousness.
May we be willing to rethink our thoughtless ways.
May we have the ego strength to go through the awkward, re-learning needed.
May we all accept we have serious work to do.

Tracy Simpson

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