Words Matter

Last night, the above joke appeared on my Google+ stream. At one point, a woman made a comment about how the “how can u” people didn’t do “any meaningful work.” Since I had insomnia anyway, I pointed out the classist assumptions in her statement. Education (both grammatical and sexual) and employment  are both associated with poverty level. To automatically assume that the “how can u” group doesn’t do any “meaningful” work is highly problematic. Working two part-time service jobs to make ends meet is certainly not what many people would call “meaningful,” but it doesn’t give us the right to call lower-class people lazy and make fun of them.

This woman and I tussled for a bit, and ultimately, she gave me the “it was just a joke” line. She told me that this joke, and discussions of poverty and education, were two different issues.

Words matter. I know this. Words matter because they are the building blocks of human communication. They are how we transmit ideas. The are how we teach. When we think, we think in the language we know. Words are one tool we have for developing our worldviews. It’s almost scary how much power they have.

Words always have meaning. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a joke. It doesn’t matter if you’re being serious. Words still always mean things, and those meanings cannot always be erased in context.

But words also are not always overt. In the picture at the top of the page, the punchline is that “Grammar Matters.” Now, I love good grammar. I love good punctuation so much that I have a tattoo of a semicolon on my wrist. I do believe that grammar matters.

However, this image isn’t just saying that grammar is important. The words don’t just literally mean that. They are also implying that if you don’t have good grammar, you’re the kind of person who gets STDs and doesn’t do anything meaningful to improve the world.

As I mentioned above, poverty can have a huge impact on education and employment. I signed a bunch of confidentiality agreements at my day job, but I can tell you that I spend 40 hours a week seeing the disparity of education levels between wealthy and poor communities. There is a huge gap between Dallas and Brownsville. Houston is so big and diverse that there are huge gaps within the city itself. Depending on where you are in Texas (in the USA, in the world), you may or may not be learning to write. You may or may not be learning about safe sex. You may or may not be learning basic concepts in math and science. You may or may not even finish high school.

The image above makes fun of the huge disadvantages that economically disadvantaged people face on a daily basis. On the surface, the words are saying, “Ha ha, let’s make fun of all the stupid people who don’t know how herpes is transmitted.” (Let’s not even touch on the fact that you can come from an economically wealthy community and be taught, in public school, that abstinence and religion is the only option you have available and doesn’t actually educate you.) But what it implies is that if you have not had the advantages of a good education, if you are poor and struggling to make end’s meet, if you don’t have energy after working 60 hours a week to fight global warming, or any spare money to invest in stocks, then you are less of a person. It implies that if you haven’t had the advantages of a middle- or upper-class person, you don’t measure up.

I don’t see this image and discussions of poverty and education as separate issues. The reason this image exists is because these disparities exist, and somebody thought it was funny to mock them. This is funny because there is class inequality in this country, and some people like to try capitalizing on that for their own amusement.

This image is not “just a joke.” It is a reflection of the way we view and judge the undereducated in the United States. And I, for one, am uncomfortable with laughing at those who haven’t had all the privileges I had growing up.

I believe that language has the power to change the world. One of the ways it can do that if if we stop using it as a tool to mock others who are undeserving of our scorn. Thing before you speak. And when you do, don’t just think about what your words say on the surface. Think about what they suggest. Think about what they imply. Think about what you might be really saying.

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