Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Making the road safer: the power of words



A few weeks ago we had a speaker at our church, Ed Wilson from International Justice Mission, which is an organization devoted to rescuing and restoring victims of sex trafficking. Besides talking to us about IJM's work, he also spoke on the topic of "Who is my neighbour?" using the parable of the Good Samaritan. He pointed out that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the man in the parable was walking when he was robbed and beaten, was a dangerous road -- and he challenged us by asking us what dangerous road we could help make safer.

His talk got me thinking about an incident I experienced about ten years ago. I was reading a major Canadian women's magazine that I subscribed to. In it was an article by a well-known and often controversial journalist. She was lambasting our former prime minister -- something that lots of other people were doing (and still do), and which was totally within her rights.

But one sentence jumped off the page at me: she described him as having "an Asperger-like inability to understand human beings."

I was so angry. I didn't care what she said about the prime minister; he was a big boy and could defend himself. But I cared what she said about people with Asperger's because I know, from close personal experience, that people with Asperger's are not "unable to understand human beings." Her comment was not only unkind, it was unfair and inaccurate. It was as if she was looking around for some weapon to attack someone she hated and thought, "Here's an easy stereotype; I'll use it to insult the prime minister, and who cares if it insults someone else."

I wrote a letter to the magazine's editor, criticizing the journalist's use of this cruel comment. I said I had a daughter with Asperger's who was an empathetic and caring girl (she was that way at age 8 and still is). Then I said I would never read this magazine again (which I haven't), and I ended by saying that if the writer wanted to call me to apologize, here was my phone number.

Much to my surprise ... she called me.

I picked up the phone one afternoon and a quiet, intense voice said, "This is X. I read your letter, and I'm sorry."

She said that things like Asperger's would be treated as shameful secrets in her family, and she commended me for being open about this subject.

We talked for a couple of minutes, but I honestly can't remember much of what she said because I was so shocked that she had actually contacted me. Before ending the call she gave me her personal email address. I kept it for a little while but then discarded it, since I realized I had no reason or desire to stay in touch with her.

The magazine printed my letter, too, and a number of people -- some of them only acquaintances -- mentioned it to me.

This episode didn't turn me into a vocal autism or Asperger's advocate, but it taught me something. It brought home to me the power of words -- for both good and bad. One sentence can spread an unfair, ignorant stereotype ... and one sentence challenging that perspective can touch a heart and change a mind.

Of course, the outcome isn't always that positive or quick. Another writer, another magazine, might have just ignored me. Worse still, often when someone speaks out in defence of another person who's being treated unfairly, they end up being attacked themselves. I see that on social media way too often: a person of integrity is publicly vilified just because they stepped out and objected to what they were seeing or hearing.

I think our church speaker's question -- What road are we being called to make safer? -- is a good one. It reminds us that some battles may not be ours to fight; after all, sometimes those we rush to defend are perfectly capable of standing up for themselves and don't want or need a spokesperson.  

But if we feel that call to enter the fray, it probably means we should. Taking a stand on behalf of those who are being disparaged by someone with a platform may not make us popular. But it may make the road -- and the world -- feel a little bit safer to someone who's misunderstood, vulnerable, or marginalized.

Words are powerful. Let's use them well. 


(photo freeimages.co.uk)

22 comments:

  1. Great post Jeannie. I was just talking with someone yesterday about how some blogs have become dangerous roads because of hostile and mean-spirited comments. It sounds like your letter was the kind of comment that the author took to heart. We need others that we trust to correct, to refine, and to encourage our words. Thanks for a great example of doing just that. Judy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Judy!

      Delete
  2. That speaker framed the challenge articulately and you lived it artistically, Jeannie. It's a masterpiece of an example for the rest of us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tim. The speaker also gave a great example of his own: he was on a ferry and heard a young man behind him pressuring a young woman to have sex, which she was clearly resisting. He turned around and asked the girl if she was OK with this, and then he told the guy to back off. It was a great story of how he put his own words into practice.

      Delete
    2. Well done and nice way of providing real life example to the sermon. Thanks!

      Delete
    3. Thanks for coming by and reading and for taking the time to comment! I appreciate it.

      Delete
  3. What a wonderful story! Thank you for the reminder to own our power by speaking our truth with compassion and kindness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And thanks for coming by to read the post. I appreciate your comment.

      Delete
  4. Thanks so much for sharing this story! Very encouraging.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So glad it spoke to you, Beth. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Delete
  5. I love this Jeannie. My son is Korean, adopted, and has special needs and disabilities and I have found myself unable to be quiet when I encounter people using race, adoption, special needs, and disabilities as weapons or fuel for hate. Sometimes that's within our own small circle, sometimes it's a wider problem. I love the visual of making the road safer. I hope that I'm making the road safer not just for my son, but for others like him who will come after.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's wonderful, Anna. Thanks so much for reading my post and commenting with your own experience.

      Delete
  6. Thanks for sharing this story! It is so hard to speak up effectively when you feel hurt, and so wonderful when it results in a true change in someone's understanding.

    When I was in college, a male student I didn't know wrote on an electronic discussion board that Bill Clinton was a [slang term for female parts]. I told him there is a perfectly good word for what he really meant ("coward") so there was no need to use this term unless he meant to say that female parts are bad or that women are cowards or something that is about women rather than about Bill Clinton. I figured this most likely would turn into an argument or be ignored. But the man apologized to me, apologized to all women reading, and bought me dinner to thank me for the insight. He simply had not thought of it that way. In the culture in which he grew up (football player, tough-guy dad) this was just a word that was thrown around casually. When he thought, "Gee, because I hate a guy, I called him something that actually is a part of women I like very much that I'm glad is different from men..." then he realized how absurd it was, and that took him down this whole path of realizing how he had been treating women the way he saw the guys treat them without thinking about what was right or even about what he personally wanted to be doing. We met for several more conversations working out his attitude. It was cool!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Becca - thanks for sharing that. So glad to hear that you had the courage to speak AND that he had the humility to really listen and change his thinking. That's really powerful.

      Delete
  7. This is a powerful reminder not to be tired of speaking up. I know that for me, in this social media age, sometimes the easier road is to be apathetic and avoid the potential backlash of speaking up.

    Note to self: The easier road is not always the safer road :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know what you mean about taking that easier road. It's risky to speak. Thanks a lot for reading and commenting.

      Delete
  8. Thanks for this post. It is a good example of how to "put shoes on" the Good Samaritan parable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think so, Mary. I appreciate your reading it and taking time to comment.

      Delete
  9. Well done Jeannie. I dare say your letter opened not only your eyes to the power of words, but probably is clearly fixed in the memory of the editor and that journalist, too. I do like the way you use your words ;)

    ReplyDelete
  10. You did an amazing thing by writing that letter. Thanks for adding your story to the Dream Team Tuesday special needs link up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jolene!

      Delete

Please leave a comment. I love to hear from readers, and I always reply!