Last week, we discussed “The Magic Words” and how saying things like please and thank you can bridge the gap and unite.

This week I’d like to discuss the flip side of that coin: Dirty words.

I’m not about the four-letter variety, either. I’m talking about how we can use our language to create division and hurt.

It’s interesting to note that no discussion of divisive speech can exist in a vacuum. We’re all products of our time and culture, which is ever changing. Using curse words as an example, perhaps you’ve noticed how many of them have crept into television through the past couple of decades — things that would have been deemed unimaginable to say are now regularly featured without batting an eyelash.

When it comes to the other kinds of dirty words, however, the converse seems to be the trend. Names and expressions that used to be tolerated are now being called out as unacceptable and offensive.

And that’s really what I want to focus on: The language that perpetuates an “us” and “them” mentality. Stereotypes. Generalities. Slurs. Categorizing all people of a particular race or religion or heritage or affiliation as somehow “them” and therefore distinct and different from “us.”

I was raised attending a Jewish Day School in Dallas, and thus never really encountered anti-Semitism, until entering public school in junior high.

In fact, my first recollection on point was of being forbidden to attend a particular public school because they had been dealing with some “Neo Nazi” violence.

At the time, I didn’t even really know what that meant.

Sure, I knew about the Holocaust and the biblical stories of persecution. But I didn’t really have a framework for understanding how that fit into our present-day situation, as everyone I’d gone to school with, along with the teachers, staff and administrators, had all been Jewish.

But as time went on, I began to see how people pre-conceived that they knew something about me just because of the label. I was told there were clubs I’d be ineligible to join, jobs that I wouldn’t be hired for, and periodically I was assigned attributes that weren’t even true of me in particular.

When you reduce a person to what you perceive to be their category, in a sense you deprive them of their humanity.

At the end of the day, we are all different, but more importantly, we are also all the same.

When we use dirty words that brand an entire group, we’re creating a divide: A line in the sand, the mentality of us versus them. Instead of focusing on what’s different, I challenge us as a community to look for what unites us — for the things we share.

Maybe it’s our love of family. Maybe it’s a belly laugh in response to a funny joke. Maybe it’s the enjoyment of a warm, sunny day.

There’s always a way to find common ground. And maybe it starts by dropping those dirty words from our vernacular and learning to truly see each other.

As always, I’d love to hear from you and can be reached at www.shanastein.com/contact.

Recommended for you