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Words mean things–er, sort of

April 2, 2008

"It’s just semantics" and "we’re saying the same thing" are two responses to attempts at working out subtle and difficult differences I hate to hear. I find them lazy and cowardly.  They neither reveal common ground nor do they move anyone toward generative understanding of diversity.

These responses do not build trust.  They are disrespectful in the way they discredit one party’s perceptions of the issues by elevating the perspective of the other who sees how things "actually" are. They imply it is smarter to gloss over facts and complex relationships between ideas. These responses imply that if you disagree, you should keep quiet until you see it the right way.

Holding disagreement, respecting one’s own lack of understanding of an idea and going deeper without breaking trust with the people in the conversation is essential to progress.

And I think this is what many well meaning people who try to calm a contentious conversation with theses statements are trying to accomplish. But glossing over lanugage, distorting meanings, implying understanding where none exists, etc. doesn’t work.

I was reminded of my experiences of colleagues killing a conversation by using the phrases above when I was reading Euphemism and American Violence by David Bromwich appearing in the New York Review of Books.  After reading the article, I realized there are many more and more subtle ways to accomplish the same thing.

Here is a representative quote from the article:

The "global war on terrorism" promotes a mood of comprehension in the absence of perceived particulars, and that is a mood in which euphemisms may comfortably take shelter. There is (many commentators have pointed out) something nonsensical in the idea of waging war on a technique or method, and terrorism was a method employed by many groups over many centuries before al-Qaeda—the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the Irgun, to stick to recent times. But the "war on crime" and "war on drugs" probably helped to render the initial absurdity of the name to some degree normal. This was an incidental weakness, in any case. The assurance and the unspecifying grandiosity of the global war on terrorism were the traits most desired in such a slogan.

It is a fairly long article and well worth the read. Thanks to Chris for the pointer.

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