Case Study #24 — The Power of Words2016-12-03T22:15:40+00:00

By Charis Denison, Prajna Consulting
Daily Dilemma — GoodCharacter.com

The Situation

“Omigod. That is so retarded!”

Katy cringed. She hated that word. She knew it was meant as a joke but it wasn’t a joke to her because it made fun of people who had done nothing to deserve it and have no choice. She thought about how many times a day she heard that word. And that wasn’t the only word that made her cringe these days. If she heard the word “gay” one more time used to mean someone was stupid or weird she was going to scream. Ever since her fifth grade social studies teacher spent a lesson on language and how words shape how we see the world, she started seeing examples everywhere that proved him right. But now that she realized all this, what was she supposed to do?

The following week, Katy was in the cafeteria when she heard a friend at her table complain that the science teacher was making him stay after school to take a test. “And I even told him I would miss basketball practice. Mr. Swenson is such a retard.”

“Can you stop saying that word, Matt? It’s not fair.” Katy froze. She couldn’t believe she had just spoken. The words came out without thinking first. Everyone stopped and looked at her.

“What is your problem?” Matt asked. Katy felt her face get hot.

“Yeah, Katy, it’s just a joke. Lighten up,” someone else said as others nodded in agreement. “Everyone says it.”

The conversation moved forward, but Katy’s face stayed hot and she felt alone and ganged up on. She didn’t want other people to make fun of her, but she also felt like if she didn’t speak up about this sort of thing she would also feel bad. Even if using words like “retarded” and “gay” didn’t make things worse in the world, it surely wouldn’t make things better.

Katy felt weird by speaking up. And she felt weird by staying silent. Why did all this seem so clear to her social studies teacher and not to her? And most importantly, what should she do?

Notes for the Facilitator

I am sure all of us have grappled with this issue on some level in our work with youth. It always surprises me that even with my seniors, I still struggle to gain mutual understanding from some students about the power of using terms like “gay” or “retarded” as an insult or in a deliberately derogatory way. There is a disconnect from young people that must be connected and it takes patience and tenacity. The great thing is that on any developmental level, once young people get it, they get it. They get it across the board, can come up with other examples (“bitch” for example), and begin to feel more and more comfortable calling each other out on it. This confidence in calling each other out truly builds each time and is contagious.

I like to compare it to the larger issue of social justice. Often when we begin an action based on our sense of what is right, we may feel that action is small, insignificant, or even silly. Often we feel self conscious or insecure. But, if we persevere because we know our actions are right, each time we make that action, the understanding of its significance deepens. It is like a “moral muscle”. Each act gives us more confidence and a stronger belief in ourselves and our growing beliefs. Thus, the cycle begins again. We see another opportunity to right a wrong, and now have a bit more trust in our values and we make another small act.

Many students will argue that these words have no power. I find it most effective to facilitate a conversation in this arena that consists of at least five questions for every statement. For example, “I hear that when you say ‘gay’ you just mean ‘dumb’. What impact might hearing that word in that context have on someone questioning their sexuality, or to someone who cares about someone who is really gay?” Or, “When does slang become slander?” ”Would you use the word ‘retarded’ if someone in the room was a person who you suspected might have developmental challenges?” If you keep that up, a few students (if you don’t already have a handful) will begin to do your work for you.

Discussion Q

  • What’s the big deal here? Is Katy making too much out of nothing?
  • What do you think the lesson Katy heard in social studies about language sounded like?
  • What do think makes Katy uncomfortable about speaking up when she hears words that offend her?
  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable when you’ve heard one of these words used?
  • Have you ever used one of these words? Have you thought about how using it might hurt the feelings of others?
  • Can you think of a time when you or someone you know corrected another person after he or she used a word that like “retarded” or “gay”? What happened? Is it something you or they might do again, do you think?
  • How do you think Katy might be making a difference simply by asking that people not use language that might insult or hurt someone’s feelings?
  • How do little actions to make things right affect bigger actions? Can a small act of good make a bigger difference? How?