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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/3/19

Words matter: Lessons from High School Speech Class

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I didn't like my high school speech teacher. She was a loud and boisterous woman who wore bright clothes and a lot of makeup and being also the drama coach made her classroom her stage.

I was a quiet and reserved student and of course, somewhat apprehensive about public speaking. To make matters worse Mrs. Mikasen felt it her obligation to bring students like me "out of our shell" helping us, she believed by having us perform some "drills" designed to help us "get over" our fear. These somewhat embarrassing impromptu activities, did nothing to alleviate my dread of public speaking and only served to make me see her more as my mortal enemy than as a learned instructor.

Maybe her tactics worked on some, but my confidence to speak publicly came later as a result of confidence in myself not from desensitizing me to humiliation. In any event, in retrospect, this annoying woman taught me some life changing things about speech and for that I feel a lasting gratitude towards her.

Lesson 1:

Words matter. They are far more than physical representations of speech. They do more than merely encapsulate the qualities of objects, they express the very ideas and emotions that we possess in our souls. Furthermore, word choice has context. Historical and cultural contexts are the reason memes and jokes will get a laugh at home while leaving a foreigner, though well versed in the language itself, still scratching their heads. Our language is an expression of our ideas but our word choice reveals the more specific lens with which we view the world. Our perspective, and often our bias, is exposed through our chosen terminology, our cultural "dialects".

As our political tribalism increases, so does our tendency to recognize and react positively to the shared language of our ideological peers and to react negatively when we hear the "language" perceived as that of our "enemies". The use of a term, one or two words can reveal your entire stance on an issue. Occupied territories vs. settlements, or even the connotations each tribe ascribes to a single word - like socialist.

Response to language triggers is often intense and immediate. Charged words are regularly slung like arrows by pundits and politicians to intentionally provoke division. While at other times these verbal grenades explode in the face of the thrower due to their failure recognize the language they are using carries such inflammatory connotations.

One recent example of this was the controversy which erupted over Ilhan Omars comments about Israel. There were many lenses through which the comments took on a different hue. There is the lens through which Jewish people view her words, having personally experienced the ramifications of anti-Semitic language. Others who, not having had such an experience, see her words merely as a blunt and honest criticism of the often taboo subject of Israeli policy towards Palestine.

There is also the non-verbal, more visual lens arising out of the shifting demographics of the United States which focuses on the source of the criticism: a newly elected Muslim, a woman, a person of color, being defiant to the traditional, white, Judeo-Christian, male dominated power structures. This audacity was too much for some. Her speech was not only controversial for its word choice but also for the cultural context in which those words were spoken, making the polarization that much more exaggerated.

This is why we can not come to an agreement on what her words meant or were intended to mean. Through any given lens what is the truth can appear different. Each of those lenses carries with it an entire history and culture. To deny the perspective of an individual is to then to deny the validity of that person. When the perspectives of cultures/tribes collide, emotions heighten. Fear and hostility drive the tribes into their respective camps and their language becomes even more couched in their specific bias.

One day we came into class Mrs. Mikasen came around and handed us index cards instructing us to pick one but not to look at it. Of course I thought there was some silly activity on it we would be forced to perform. She told us to stand up and lay the card on the floor in front of us. Each of us would flip our card over, read the word and then stomp on it with our feet. Of course it sounded ridiculous. As the we flipped the cards over, the ones labeled "car" or "house" drew no reaction, and were simply stomped on. However words like mother, baby, America and of course God gave most of us pause. Some couldn't or wouldn't stomp on the cards with these words because in our tribe these words have a sacred attachment to them.

This exercise showed the us that although our conscious minds recognize these are mere ink marks on index cards, they are also much more than that. Words are symbols that have power. Immediately upon recognition of the words they transcend the paper and become more. They become the very embodiment of all that the word represents to us and in a group setting, causes us to be cautious of what others will think of how we use and respect that word or idea. What will my peers think of me if I can stomp a paper that says baby on it? What will my tribe think if I stomp.on a word like "God"?

In the 24 hour, rapid fire news cycle, we are flooded with so much information it is hard to even digest it but one thing which we do absorb is the bias created by the tribal language that surrounds us. Whatever your given news source, you will be catered to and spoken to in "your" language. This only breeds more tribalism.

Those who understand that language can divide us into tribes and who seek to herd us into a given tribe for their purposes are forceful in using their words controlling the narrative.

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Michele Goddard Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter Page       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

I was born in 1970 in Wheeling, WV and have lived here all my life. I come from mostly Irish Catholic coal miners and railroad workers. My original academic interest was in teaching foreign languages studying both French and Spanish in High (more...)
 

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