There are more new political and cultural words and phrases in the air than at any point in our lifetimes. As I’m sure you’ve noticed when you open the paper or turn on the news, a new bit of jargon hits our ears. Some of these words and phrases speak to a culture attempting to be more accurate and sensitive; some are mixed into political agendas in ways that are sneaky and loaded. All of it is designed to shape our view of reality. Some of it can make us feel un-hip, out of touch. We must not cower. In an effort to be more comfortable with the linguistic change that swims around us, I slotted our first service in June as an answer to these changes. It is titled “Glossary: Learning a New Language.”
It is as much a political and cultural vocabulary test as it is a sermon. This list of words and definitions are designed to bring us all up to speed, or at least save us from the embarrassment of watching the news and not knowing what’s up. If you’ve ever wondered what being “woke” is, or what’s up with all the pronouns, this may be for you. I think of this sermon as one brick in the many-stepped path that can bring our society to a greater fullness.
More than half of these terms are too young to drink. I encourage you to come, or watch, as part of an overall effort to be educated. I like to think of it as an attempt to create a language and cast a vision that appreciates the full complexity of who people are. Most of us left the religious traditions we grew up with because they lacked as full and complex an understanding of things as you did. This is a chance to fulfill that commitment to expressing the deeper complexity of things than past conventions could handle.
For some, these new phrases are a mock-able and frustrating act of indulgence to appease a bunch of whiny people who just can’t accept that they’re weird, challenged, and should simply get over it. There are a fair number of people who feel little moral responsibility or guilt when they define the world with an indifference to the struggles of the marginalized and don’t want to do the moral work of hearing their voice. The truth is, it’s far easier to say someone is weird than to work to learn a bunch of terms that challenge the simplicity of one’s worldview.
One of the real questions hidden in all this involves who gets to control the language we use in describing and defining reality. Historically, it has always been the dominant culture. That is shifting some. Moved by the desire to get out of rights granted by our Constitution, white America defined black men as two-thirds of a man. That stuff no longer flies. Never should have. Now we are in a period where that linguistic sword has turned. The language is seen for at least some of what it is, and that is a language of oppression.
When one begins with the assumption that usually any institution or movement is trying to shape reality and perception, we remember that language is powerful.
We at the UUA no longer say we are “standing on the side of love,” which, if accurate, is criticized for speaking of the ableism of being able to literally, physically, stand. This desire to be “inclusive” and inviting to others can seem excessive until you’re the one in a wheelchair at a rally filled with mustard-colored “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts you can’t see past, presumably singing about all the marginalized people you are defending.
For certain, employing the metaphor of standing as a bravery-provoking theme in stepping up to defend a more inclusive, loving path forward is not the Klu Klux Klan at your door, it’s not using the N-word as a weapon. But it might not feel very empowering to have the metaphor for justice be something you can’t do.
I would never use the N-word to describe someone, but it has been only a few years since I learned that asking where someone non-white is from can be a macroaggression. Words have an impact, and words have a disproportionately negative impact on people who are not part of a dominant culture. All that makes watching what you say not so much about being “politically correct” as it is trying to be a decent human being.
For that reason, we are going to dedicate our Sunday service to the glossary or words presently being used. Amen