I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Maya Angelou

Someone posted a link to this article on Facebook this morning, and it caught my eye.  As many of you know, I lost my brother in law to suicide almost two and a half years ago. The article dealt with the manner in which we talk about suicide.  Specifically, it focused on the expression “committing suicide.”  I imagine most of us have used that expression many times, and never thought about its origin.  The reason that “committed” is part of the expression, is that until fairly recently (the last fifty years or so) suicide was a crime. As in, committed murder, committed armed robbery.

I will not dwell on the sheer jackassery of suicide being an illegal act, as though the notion of a jail sentence would deter someone who is in that kind of despair.

It got me to thinking about the inherent power our words have to lift up other people or to cause them pain.  The words we CHOOSE.  The words we say don’t just happen, they are always a decision.

Yesterday, I got back from vacation.  I sat down to watch some tv, and saw that Cold Justice, a reality show on TNT that follows a prosecutor and crime scene investigator reopening cold murder cases and trying to get justice for the victims, had a spin-off that focuses on sex crimes.

Perhaps I should start by saying that I am not triggered by watching shows that deal with the subject of sexual assault or child abuse.  Many survivors are.  I don’t know why I am not, but I’m not.  This show can be graphic, and I imagine very upsetting for some people to watch.  I think the people who go on this show are warriors, and I am moved by and proud of their bravery.  Talking about these things openly is how things change- I truly believe that.  As a survivor, there is also great satisfaction for me in seeing other survivors get justice within the legal system, and to see the amazing women and men who pursue these cases tirelessly.  Theirs is the work of the angels.

The pilot focused on an elderly woman, attacked in her home.  I won’t get into details, I’ve no desire to upset anyone for whom such a show would be triggering.  The team brought in a detective who specializes in sex crimes from the LA police department.  He said, at one point during the episode, that “When you kill someone, you take their life, and when you sexually assault someone, you take away their soul.”

Let me preface what I am about to say by stating unequivocally that I think this is a tremendously good man, a kind man, and incredibly talented at what he does.  I thank God for the men and women who do this work, work that must weigh on their hearts so heavily.

I was sexually assaulted as a child.  My body was violated and injured.  I was emotionally harmed. Did it weigh on my soul?  Certainly.  But I promise you, I still have one.  The woman in the case they were pursuing, a sweet and beloved music teacher who plays the organ at her church and has the kindest face I’ve seen in a good long while, most certainly still has hers.

It reminds me of things I’ve read and heard over the years, and that I never really bothered to challenge because I knew they were well intentioned.  I think it is an attempt to empathize with the horror of the crime. How many times have you heard rape referred to as a “fate worse than death” or the crime as “worse than murder” or heard someone say, “I’d rather die than be raped?”

I can assure you, good people, no.  No, you would not.  I can say that because when I was being assaulted I thought I was going to die- and all I wanted to do was live.  That’s the only thing I remember about how I felt, other than physically.  I just wanted to live.

You can heal from rape and sexual abuse.  Murder is final.  But that idea, that rape takes away your soul?  That’s harmful.  If you are in the aftermath of trauma and questioning your worth- which is what that crime does to you- hearing someone say that?  That just validates the lie  so many victims come to believe.  That their lives are over.  That they are dead inside.  I felt pain when I heard him say that, even though I knew his heart was in the right place.

What we say, and how we say it MATTERS.  Language has power.  I remember hearing Oprah have a conversation with a rap artist about the “N” word.  He was making the argument that it had been reclaimed within the African American community.  Oprah made the point that at every lynching that had ever taken place, you can be assured the victim was called that word.  That word has a history and a meaning, and it is wielded as a weapon.

I’ve heard many people talking about political correctness lately.  I’ve heard people touting Donald Trump as “refreshing” because he eschews it.

I think when people talk about political correctness it’s a couple of things melded together.  Sometimes I think it means how we refer to people, and sometimes I think it means our ability to take a joke about something personal- gender, race, ethnicity etc.

I am only going to talk about the former because the latter is a more complex topic and I don’t know how to articulate it well.

Language evolves, just as we do.  As our attitudes change, so do the words we use.  I will use an example that is near and dear to my heart.  Let us discuss the use of the word retarded.  The term ‘mentally retarded’ used to be the standard, accepted term for someone with intellectual, social or emotional developmental delays.  Doctors used it, professionals used it, experts used it.  As our understanding developed, so did our language.

Somewhere along the line, though, the word retarded began to be used as a pejorative.  It became an insult.  It became, to some people, a synonym for stupid, or senseless.  It became a staple in the arsenal of things school children call each other, without a single thought about the origin of the word, or the entire population its use degrades.  I still hear it used.  By adults.  On a regular basis.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Special Ed classrooms.  I’ve worked with countless kids who at one time would have been classified as mentally retarded but are now diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury etc.  Not one of them, NOT ONE, was stupid or senseless.

In high school, it was very popular to call something, or someone gay for the same reasons.  You’re so gay.  That’s so gay.  I was guilty of saying that all the time.  Then I joined my local community theater and met people that were openly gay.  It began to strike me how awful it was to use that word as an insult, so I stopped. It wasn’t that hard, guys. When I knew better, I did better.

Let me tell you what is both stupid and senseless- continuing to use a word or expression once you know it is causing someone pain.  If your need to use that language is more important to you than someone else’s feelings I have news for you, you aren’t ‘plain-spoken,’ and you aren’t ‘telling it like it is.’

You’re an asshole.

If you are legitimately bent out of shape about having to use a different word, then you are looking to be bent out of shape.  People who do that are successful, but only 100% of the time.

I do not think, for one second, that detective is an asshole.  I think that he cannot know how that sentence feels when it is heard by someone who has experienced rape.  So I am telling him.  I’m sending a link to this post to the show, in the hopes that going forward they think more carefully about the language they use when talking about survivors of sexual assault.  I think they are good people doing heroic work.  I think they care about what they say and the impact it has.  Once they read this, they will know better.  Let’s see what they do.

20 Comments on “Evolution

  1. Laura-
    Thank you for this post. I agree with you. I do wonder, however, do we keep changing our words when people continue to change the meaning or do we tell them to knock it off because they’re being hurtful. It feels kind of like being bullied into changing. It seems akin to an article I have read about a girl who was being bullied about her ears that stuck out. So she got free surgery to fix it. It rubs me that we are changing ourselves to stop the problem. My parents had the very same surgery performed on my ears when I was 4. In my mind, yes, they wanted to stop sneers and bullying but my adult mind also sees it as something was wrong with me so it needed to be changed.

    I shudder at the very thought of saying a mentally-challenged person is retarded when it is now considered a derogatory term. However, I shuddder at the idea of changing the terms, too.

    I’m not a person who declares things or solves problems. I’m a person who asks questions from all different angles. I hope I have written this in a way that it goes without saying that I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m not saying we should still be saying the word retarded, I just would like to have a dialogue about the concern I’ve raised.

    Thank you for posts that always make me think, Laura.

    Liked by 1 person

    • well, here’s the thing, Sarah- we ARE still using the word retarded. I hear it ALL the time. We just aren’t using it in the way it was originally intended. That would actually be less offensive. That would just be someone who didn’t know it wasn’t the appropriate word anymore. It’s the difference between ignorance and unkindness. I think ignorance gets a bad rap. Ignorance just means you don’t know something, and as I said, when we know better, we do better. If we don’t, that’s a CHOICE. We are CHOOSING to be hurtful.

      We are using the word retarded as an insult. I hear it all the time- and I can tell you as someone who has worked in special ed and knows many, many parents of kids with special needs, it is painful and hurtful every single time. And people know the word’s origin- at least adults do. And kids are learning it from adults.

      I don’t think we are being bullied into changing anything about ourselves by being told- “hey, when you use that word or expression that way it is causing me pain.” It’s a word- find another one. We’ve got lots.

      I understand what you are saying in terms of the article you mentioned- I just think they’re different conversations. And I am always glad to engage in discussion, even if we do happen to disagree. xoxo

      Liked by 1 person

      • First of all, I’ve used the term mentally challenged. What is the term that is being used?

        When this term is used in the same hateful way, do we change it again?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mentally challenged is not an expression I would use. Developmentally delayed is a more current term, although I think MY preference is to talk about the person first and then be more specific. A child who has Autism. A child with Down Syndrome. Listen, I get that it can be frustrating to feel as though you are making a mistake by using a term that was perfectly acceptable at one time- particularly if you are not using it in an intentionally hurtful way. But, yes. I guess my answer is yes. We do. We learn, and we grow, and we change. Language is constantly evolving. Is it really such an onerous thing, to stop using a word or a term once you know it bothers people, or that we know more about something and can use a more accurate term? I just don’t think it is.


      • The Internet is a tricky place and I feel like maybe my words are being misconstrued.

        I want to make clear again that I do not use these words. I think there are a lot of words that have taken an offensive turn for long enough that every person-not just the person having hate spewed at them-should find it offensive to hear them being used in a hateful manner.

        I think if you and I were having this conversation in person, my inflection and the natural flow of conversation would let you know that these questions I ask are not in a put-off manner. Meaning, I’m not asking these questions as push-back and desiring to keep the words the same. I ask them in pure curiosity and concern. I feel like because I am not intellectually disabled I am not allowed to be a part of the conversation. I am not questioning whether or not they are offensive-that’s not my place. I am not trying to be a part of the conversation as to what the terms should be. And I’m not at all trying to make anyone feel like their feelings aren’t valid. I believe that not being part of the intellectually disabled group disqualifies me from most of the conversation, but-in my opinion-I don’t think it’s wrong of me to ask what does changing the word now mean for the future when it happens again. Perhaps I’m incorrect. If I am, I’m okay being told that. That’s what learning is all about. I would never learn if I didn’t make a mistake and stand corrected. Even when that means offending someone. It doesn’t make me a bad person.

        In my original comment, I used the term bullying and I feel now that was a bad choice of words. I just feel frustrated by the assholes who make the word changes necessary.

        I guess at this point if I feel like I’m being misunderstood I will stop trying to explain myself. I don’t want you to see that that sarah girl has commented again and roll your eyes because she won’t give up. 😉.

        Thanks again, Laura, for being willing to join me in this conversation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ok, What am I missing? I never thought you were using any of these,terms in a derogatory way. Is that what you’re referring to? And I agree, sometimes we lose a lot when typing- it can’t always effectively convey tone. I’m sorry you feel misunderstood, but I am happy to have the conversation. xo


      • I don’t use them in a derogatory manner and I don’t use them at all. Ever.


      • the only term I thought you said you used was “mentally challenged” and maybe that was me misreading what you wrote- and even that I didn’t take as a negative thing. I am really glad you engaged in the conversation Sarah, and I’m truly sorry you felt misunderstood- that’s really frustrating.


  2. These words of yours; “Let me tell you what is both stupid and senseless- continuing to use a word or expression once you know it is causing someone pain. If your need to use that language is more important to you than someone else’s feelings I have news for you, you aren’t ‘plain-spoken,’ and you aren’t ‘telling it like it is.’

    You’re an asshole.”
    are perfect.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I would like to say, you are spot on about the use of language when it comes to treating/talking to children in the face of trauma, I know because this is my work. You don’t know their pain, all at times you can do is sit and say I’m here, I’m sorry, play a game and let them open up to you.. Reminding them that is a brave thing to do.
    I like a quote by Brene Brown who is a shame researcher “loving ourselves through the process of owning our own story is the bravest thing we will ever do.” And when they share I read this quote and let them know I will hold their story safe, so they may feel a little less anxiety, but it is their story and I will hold it for them if they want me too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! I have always been sort of perplexed about the accuracy of complaining about political correctness because to me it always seems it is someone upset about the inconvenience of having to considers others outside of their own experience not at all about political spin. In your paragraph about what people mean by political correctness I can’t help but think that the two instances you describe are essentially the same – how we talk about people.

    And just as an FYI in seeing the conversation above in the comments, the official diagnostic term that replaced mental retardation in the DSM 5, IDEA categories, etc is Intellectual Disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder is a separate category. (though you could happen to have both) Although this may/will all change as well as the emphasis shifts between focusing on intellectual and functionally adaptive skills for diagnostic labels. What I find really exciting is that the law that replaces mental retardation with intellectual disability (Rosa’s law) in all federal laws also require person first language, just as you mentioned!
    Sorry for my nerdy ramblings. In the end, I continue to tell my kids that I think the people that get the say about the language used to talk about them is the people being talked about. If someone doesn’t know that is one thing. But to be told about the impact of your language and then whine about political correctness… you nailed it- asshole!


  5. I have a dear friend who lost a brother in a tragic car accident. She blogs and there have been several on the idea of the power of the words we choose (she called out “everything happens for a reason” as a tough one for her. But it can be anything that has caused us to be extra tender and raw, usually a hard thing. Your words are so powerful, and starting with Maya Angelou’s quote, because we don’t always start knowing the right words, feels so right to me. Thank you.


  6. Yes. YES! I cried when I read this: “… when I was being assaulted I thought I was going to die- and all I wanted to do was live.” That is what kept me alive and thriving all of these years despite ten years of abuse. The strong desire to live a full and whole life. The flame inside of me that is my very soul. Thank you for capturing that. Much love to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Laura. As always, 100% NAILED IT. Words matter so, so much because they are, well, the entirety of the message we are communicating. I find myself constantly fighting against terms/phrases such as “failed” versus “successful” suicide, getting “raped by the waiting room” during a markedly busy ER shift, things being “gay,” people being “retarded,” etc., etc., etc. It gets exhausting, does it not? So, THANK YOU for the reminder of the importance of our language and the need to continually be vigilant over the words we choose to send through our lips and out towards the souls of everyone we encounter. You, my friend, are making the world a better, kinder, safer place, one word at a time. Much love.


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