Shakespeare asked the famous question, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And yet, when we say the word “rose,” certain images and even odors come to mind that aren’t envisioned when we pronounce a word such as “latrine.”
Words are precious commodities, and it seems to me we have to be very careful with them. The word “Nazi” is a good example. If our 10th-grader refers to her homeroom teacher as a “Nazi,” she’s subtracted from that word’s truly obscene historical meaning.
In the interests of free speech, people may use the word “Nazi” as they wish. But that doesn’t mean they should. When they start labeling politicians with whom they disagree as “Nazis,” then truly, language has been devalued and meaning obscured.
I’ve been thinking about this because lately we’ve heard the word “thug” thrown about, perhaps with ill intent. On its face, it’s a nice, graphic word. Say the word “thug” out loud and the very sound of it conveys a heavy, menacing tone.
But apparently, it’s becoming a racial code word, and that’s not good.
Take for example, a recent example in Omaha, Neb., where the police officers’ association posted a video they found of a young black child in diapers repeating bad language and racial epithets as adults in the background egg him on. The police titled it “the thug cycle” and claimed they got it off the Facebook page of a local “thug.”
The video, and its use of the word “thug,” made national news. Omaha is a good city with a good heart, and someone there looked into the situation and took steps to remove the child from the home and placed him in a healthier environment.
The troubling question remained: What did the cops mean by the word “thug”?
Richard Sherman would probably guess they were using it as a racial slur, a way of describing black people by creating a new, racially charged word to replace one we no longer allow.
Sherman is the Seattle Seahawks player who ranted about an opposing player right after his team won the NFC championship game to advance to the Super Bowl.
After his ill-advised outburst, Sherman later described it as “immature.” The reaction online was visceral, and quickly became quite racist. Along those lines, he was frequently called a “thug.”
I’m not criticizing those who took issue with Sherman’s rant. I’m appalled by how easily, and rapidly, speech degenerates into hate speech and racial innuendo.
His unfortunate in-the-moment behavior does not define Sherman, who was a high school salutatorian, a Stanford graduate, and is by all accounts a well-spoken and community-oriented guy. But we didn’t know that immediately. And immediacy defines the Internet, doesn’t it?
During an interview after the incident, Sherman said thug “seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.”
Recently, Pope Francis spoke on communications, and his words could be directed to all of us who use the Internet to express our opinions. He said, “The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity.”
It can be, but to make it so, we must evaluate what we read and hear with thoughtfulness and empathy. And when we respond, we must value and weigh our words carefully on the scale of love.