Words have a particular reverence, and when used correctly, they draw a visceral response and call us to the frontlines.
But if you “cry wolf” too many times, the word “wolf” loses meaning. It eventually evokes a shrug, or worse, total neglect when someone is getting killed by a very real wolf.
When words are hijacked for an agenda and become a buzzword, they become nearly cult-like handshakes that are isolated to an ivory tower and only preach to the pre-confirmed choir. Even worse, a buzzword shrieks in shrill tones over the slightest hint of infraction, so the actual word loses power to sincerely cry wolf.
Words meant for a legitimate issue are robbed of legitimacy when they’re the rally cry for a mob spectacle. It seems less like a call to action and more like an inflexible banner of insider-talk, a megaphone accusation in the ear, a circular affirmation behind closed doors. Perhaps ironically, the broader a word is used, the more narrow it becomes, kidnapped as the hostage of a tiny echo-chamber. It’s alienating and incomprehensible.
Gratuitous pandering to the lowest common denominator only tramples the voiceless, and we end up diminishing the very people we were trying to help. Such words become abusive and divisive, highlighting the issues over the actual people. You can only whistle the kids out of the pool so many times until we neglect the drowning.
It’s no wonder that most people exit the building when they see a tribe-abused buzzword. Those words are now so loaded that they only convey a cartoonish, exaggerated parody, and even when used correctly, are seen as catering to a specific subset of people who already agree. Those on the fence of an issue are not fooled, either. Which is endlessly tragic, because these words in their purest form are often about a real wolf that needs to be called out and corrected.
Until we get back to their true meaning, we’ll either be picking up pitchforks at all the wrong things or rolling our eyes at all the right things.
Here are four words we’ve hijacked to the point of oblivion, which we need to reclaim for their true intent.
I absolutely believe that we all struggle, but when the word “struggle” is used to enable, coddle, or pamper, it gives a permission slip for self-sabotage and unchecked behavior. The phrase “Everyone’s struggling” isn’t false, but it’s often a self-congratulatory fist-bump over a trail of corpses you made. It not only lets us off the hook, but has become a badge of bragging rights, as if every bad decision is a relatable story at a house party. The rousing conclusion of a story I once heard: “Yeah, I was really struggling, I drove drunk right into that crowd.”
A real struggle denotes an uphill battle, an actual forward momentum with a fight against your own destructive tendencies. Struggle is also reserved for those with tragic pain, with insurmountable health and living conditions, with pain they never asked for: and I don’t ever want to take that word from them.
Yes, all of us have our uncontrollable circumstances where external pressure pushes in. That’s a struggle. But we also have a terrible selfishness ingrained in our roots that takes over, an embarrassing capability for ruinous disaster, and it requires all our sweat and effort to conquer it when it rears its ugly head. We can struggle against that, too.
Trigger is a deadly serious word. It describes an important issue for victims of trauma (especially survivors of war or abuse and those with PTSD) who could be triggered into flashbacks and panic attacks. Sometimes it’s used for addicts who need to maintain a tight sobriety by avoiding certain people, visuals, or surroundings. My father, who served alongside the US in the Vietnam War and was a POW, has been triggered several times into intense anxiety by elevators, since he had to hide in a tiny ditch when his camp was fire-bombed.
But at some point, trigger was over-used for dang near everything. It became a hand-holding hashtag. Is the blog post too long? Are there bad words? Unpopular opinions? Tragic real world events that actually happen? Trigger warning. The word has been gaslighted so much that it’s now an ironic, mocking punchline. Mad at a possibly racist joke? Your candidate didn’t get elected? Politically correct? Politically incorrect? An American eating Chinese food? Twitter meltdown? Someone said “Happy Holidays”? They’re triggered.
I do believe that trigger warnings can be useful in educational settings, especially to prepare for studying about the disturbing parts of our history and psychology. And for many of us, we must definitely turn away from triggers that may pour salt in old wounds. But that’s the point. Trigger warnings are for preparation, for the wounded and weary, and not for complete denial or for attacking others who disagree. It’s impossible to be protected against everything. It’s also unfair to ask the entire world to bow down to all our sensitivities—or rather, we must pick those battles wisely, when triggers come from truly insensitive people, so that such callousness can be changed from a thoughtful place of dialogue and not accusation.
If a celebrity or author or speaker says something problematic, we tend to write them off forever. The social media police are on a constant witch-hunt for “problematic” people, ready to burn them alive the second they don’t meet the collective parole. And that standard is always changing, an arbitrary goal-post that is never satisfied.
The worst bottom of the barrel around problematic is our trophy-making of “inclusion.” We talk a really big game about inclusion and tolerance, but if it’s remotely sensed that someone is not being inclusive, they’re “problematic” and excluded. A church or your work-place or your social media fan-club will act welcoming, until you ask questions or have an original thought or bump against the status quo.
Not everyone will say everything we agree with all the time. I will inevitably disappoint you, whether it’s because I’ve been misinformed, or I didn’t phrase something perfectly, or I spoke too quickly. But disagreement doesn’t have to end in demonizing and division.
It’s impossible to agree with 100% of all that someone says. It’s also absolutely your right to dismiss someone if they go on a tirade and reveal their true colors. I only hope that we give the same second chance that we would want for ourselves, or to allow someone to clarify their thoughts or to learn from their first messy attempt at articulating them. And I hope we can offer a real neutral ground to question the unspoken rules, to ask why “it’s always been done this way,” without the fear of being kicked out and cut off.
Can we talk about my weight and your weight without the fear of shaming each other?
I’ve worked in the hospital too long to be shy about this stuff. Weight issues are an important topic, not because a person’s weight is their value or tells the whole story, but because it determines a whole lot about risk factors and future recovery. If a doctor tells you to exercise more, it’s because they’re worried sick you might drop dead.
Of course, talking about body weight is a very painful discussion that’s smothered by impossible marketing and tone-deaf “inspiration.”. Fat-shaming is too often the norm, and all other forms of shame are awful, terrorizing, and never work for long-term change. But a rebuke is not shaming. An admonishment is not shaming. A real talk about your issues is not shaming. Sometimes we have to talk about the uncomfortable truth, and it has to be a little loud and passionate, and it won’t be done perfectly, but it’s because you need the wake-up call.
There’s a huge difference between shaming and a real conversation about your blind spots. If you only want to hear flattery and yes-men, there will never be any growth, and you’ll stay isolated in out-of-touch, all-is-fine, I’m-always-right fantasy-land. If you constantly avoid an issue with the cry, “Don’t shame me!”—chances are, you just don’t want to change, because it’s hard work. We need the tough dialogue sometimes, for someone to confront us, because that’s part of loving, a part of caring: to graciously offer truth for what’s better.