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Speaking Responsibly About Others
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, November 2011

We are all human beings. Let's remember that and speak responsibly.

Too often in history we have witnessed what happens when a group of people is devalued by others. Attitudes are reflected in words. The words people choose when referring to an individual or a group play an essential part in the elevation or diminishment of that person or group. When you witness speech that is hateful, speak up. When someone does not speak out against another person's use of diminishing language, it continues.

When you meet someone who is a member of a group that is different from your group, (what sociologists refer to as an "out-group,") you are less likely to pay attention to their individual characteristics than when you meet members of your "in-group." The reason is that stereotyping characteristics concerning "out-group" members are stronger than those regarding "in-group" members. People are therefore more willing to ignore individual information for members of "out-groups" and will likely lump them into a single "disliked" category. This "confirms" the stereotype and gives people permission to 1) keep distance 2) behave badly toward people in the "out-group" and 3) feel they are better than the people they target.

This type of thinking can lead to intolerance, fear mongering, abuse, and ultimately, in the extreme, hate crimes.

By inserting fear-based language into public rhetoric, people begin to believe lies about the "out-group" and lose a desire to come together to listen, learn, share, and air differences as a way to address problems. Divisiveness replaces collaboration.

When this happens, people feel entitled to spew hate against "the other." Each of us has a responsibility to stand up for (and not just for your "in-group") those targeted by insulting language.

And leaders need to stand up for what is right. When leaders say "Enough is enough; we are better than this" people pay attention and will likely follow. When leaders use dehumanizing language in reference to people, whether based on race, religion, gender, sexual preference, or immigration status, people will likely also pay attention and follow.

We all need to be aware, conscious, and critical of the language that our leaders, elected officials, and those who would like to be elected to public office, weave into their speech. Covert or overt biased, hate-filled, fear-based oratory damages all of us. Challenge those who believe it is right, good, and acceptable to refer to people in this country with language that removes their humanity.

This is not about political correctness. Watch your own language and research the "facts" that are tossed around to fuel the fire of separating rather than uniting. Contest those who feel it is acceptable to use denigrating speech and language when referring to another human being or "out-group." A good example is people who are referred to as "aliens."

Whatever your position on the immigration policies in the United States, remember that this country was built by immigrants. Our immigration history is far from stellar and, frankly, not always something we can be proud of. But we can come together to include rather than incite - which is what happens when we accept lies and perpetuate the use of offensive, dehumanizing language.

There are countless communities where people are polarized by fear and lack of understanding. Let us work toward having countless communities were people are united by a desire to listen to and learn from and about each other.

Get involved. Have conversations. Be mindful of all of our humanity. You can be heated in a discussion while still remembering each person's basic humanity. No one has the right to discuss another person or group in a manner that denigrates, dehumanizes, or devalues them. This type of speech and language encourages people to think of others as objects and it is a short distance from thinking of someone as an object to making them a target. And we all know where that can lead.

Pastor Martin Niemöller said it best: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

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