Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Two Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

Language is central, of course, to how people relate to each other and communicate, both as individuals and groups. Language is how we negotiate power. If there is any realization at the intersection of peace education and English class, it's the realization that words matter. I have yet to meet a kid who agrees with that childhood playground rhyme that "words can never hurt me." If a kid disagrees with this view, I prod him or her to consider if people get into fights over words. Of course they know this is true, and that people wouldn't bother fighting over them if they were not significant.

Words can privilege or render invisible. Words can liberate and empower, or confine and label. I've repeated on this blog my concern that we do not focus nearly enough attention on critical and creative thinking in high school. Frankly this is a reflection of an anti-intellectual streak in our cultural at large, but it is also I think just easier to grade spelling tests or objective questions on a short story than to vigorously engage with and debate complicated ideas. I'm hardly observing anything new what's stopping us? Why is this conversation still necessary?

One of the critical understandings I want my students to have is the danger of "black and white" thinking. Either ors and false dichotomies abound, and they trap us. They trap how we understand ourselves (women can be smart or pretty, not both), X group of people is either good or evil. Everything from useless products to gangs to wars can be sold with such sloppy thinking. So I recently told my students to guess the two most dangerous words in the English language. Many of their guesses I won't repeat here *ahem*. One student, recalling the Ladder of Hate, said "genocide". Not a bad guess. I then tell them the two most dangerous words are "always" and "never." As they're puzzled by this, I prompt them to connect these words to the Ladder of Hate to understand why. Through discussion, they come to see that you really can't stereotype without those extreme words. Also, avoiding those words forces us to speak, and therefore think, in more subtle, complex ways. I ask them to give me examples of something that is *always* or *never* true about people, and they find how hard it is to do. My hope is this discussion will give them pause and encourage more reflection on the words we choose to define a person or an idea. It's counterculture, but essential.

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