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Words have power

Melvin B. Miller
Words have power
“In order to get things done, we should drop one word from our name.”

Words matter. In casual conversation some comments can perhaps be overlooked, but that is not the case in the professions, government or the courts. People are presumed to mean what they say. Unfortunately, people do not always say what they mean, often because the precise definition of the word is not clearly understood to them. Those pursuing abstract causes have to avoid the improper use of language lest they harm their objectives. That happened to some extent with “affirmative action,” and a careless usage of “socialism” seems to be developing.

With passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, racial discrimination in employment and education became unlawful. Alleged violations of that law are still being fought in the courts some 54 years later. The pivotal issue generating some of these cases is the definition of affirmative action. When does affirmative action become a quota system?

Those asserting a bigoted perspective claimed that any numerical standard to remedy past violations constitutes the establishment of quotas. On the other hand, civil rights advocates insisted that an imposed numerical standard for compliance was necessary to assure a lawful change. Unfortunately, when the advocates for the elimination of racial discrimination demanded standards that were considered unfair, such as lower qualifications for employment or college admission, these policies were branded as quotas and some political support was lost.

In today’s political environment the sensitive word is “socialism.” Some assertively liberal politicians have been identified by the press as socialists. Since socialism is not a prominent political philosophy in this country conservatives have the liberty of attributing substantial anti-American flaws to that political concept.

Older citizens immediately think of the communist threat from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Party. Hostility with Russia after World War II created a negative impression among some Americans of anything associated with socialism. Even though the national anxiety about Russia has dissipated, American oligarchs are concerned about political assaults on their concept of rugged capitalism.

According to press reports, the so-called radical Democrats are concerned with the nation’s wealth and income disparity, stagnation in wages and the rising cost of living, the quality of public education as well as the availability of post graduate education, the availability of health care, and the expansion of safety net programs. Remedies for all of these matters can be pursued within the context of the private enterprise system without direct reference to classical socialism.

The choice of language can influence attitudes in an event. For example, an automobile collision causes some damage to the cars involved.
The incident can be perceived as an accident, in which case neither driver is at fault, or one driver can be found to be negligent. In that case the insurance company of the negligent driver will pay for the damages. Clearly, the term “collision” provides the most objective view of the incident.

Words do matter. It is important for political leaders to avoid conflicts based more upon a careless selection of language than the real substance of the issues in question.

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