Words Matter

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” – Yehuda Berg

Everyday human beings around the world communicate with one another using words, gestures, facial expressions, body language, art, music, etc. The words we choose as well as our tone of voice and our body language, play a part in how the other person receives the message and reacts. If we want the other person to be open to what we have to say, we must also be open to listening to them.

In our professions, we each have standard vocabulary that we use daily. These words can have a serious impact on those with whom we communicate. Because of this, it is important that we “keep up” with current terms as our understanding of people and situations change.

Let’s look at a few examples of terms that are used when referring to the topic of human trafficking. Often, when a person leaves the situation of being trafficked they are said to have been rescued. This term can aggrandize “the rescuer” and disempower “the rescued,” giving the impression that she or he was a helpless victim and had no role in exiting the situation.

The word “victim” is another misused and misunderstood term used to describe those who are or have been trafficked. In this article from JUSTUS, the author defines a victim as “a person who has been hurt or taken advantage of, a person harmed or injured as a result of a crime, or other event or action.” Alternatively, a survivor is defined as “a person who remains alive after an event in which others have died, literally or metaphorically. Survivors thrive! They are successful men and women who have overcome and accomplished things in their lives because of perseverance, determination, and forgiveness and their main focus in life is to create a new order through the businesses, nonprofits, ministries, and teaching they have established from their own painful past.” It’s no wonder many prefer to be identified as survivors.

How sensitive are we when we talk about groups or individuals?  Do we use labels such “the poor” when referring to a person who is living in poverty or “the homeless” when referring to a person who has no home? Or using “sex worker” or “prostitute” to refer to someone who is being commercially sexually exploited or prostituted? Do we use terms such as “they” or “those people” in our conversations or generalize when speaking about a certain group of people? In other words, do the words we choose build up or tear down? Do our words bring about unity and understanding or cause division and misunderstanding? Do our words promote respect and enhance the dignity of the person or people or degrade and disrespect?

In a recent public statement, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory stated, “We must all take responsibility to reject language that ridicules, condemns, or vilifies another person because of their race, religion, gender, age, culture or ethnic background,” the archbishop said. “Such discourse has no place on the lips of those who confess Christ or who claim to be civilized members of society.  Speech that vilifies or denigrates another is a violation of the humanity of the speaker and those to whom it is director-and deprives each of us of our God-given dignity.” The Archbishop closes his remarks with the statement, “The growing plague of offense and disrespect in speech and actions must end.”

Will you do your part to bring about a more respectful and unified world in the way you speak?

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