Do words really matter? I mean, is my choice of words still important, or is it just the thought that counts? Ironically, in a time which grammatical rules are easiest to follow, with spelling and grammar checkers, with online dictionaries, with word processors that can change a single word in a 500 page paper, words seem to have less meaning than ever. You can see it in the youth culture, which probably began with my generation, instant messaging on AOL in 1989. Now text messaging is mature, and millions of kids (and many adults) speak and write in a code language, mostly devoid of vowels and articles and tenses. I've always thought of myself as tech-savvy, but things like this make me feel old: "WAT CAN I SAY... IT WUD BE AN UNDERSTATEMENT 2 SAY NOT MUCH HAS CHANGD N R LIFE DIS DAYS".
We also live in a time of uber-jingoism not seen since the Spanish-American War. And a time of unprecedented propaganda, eerily similar to George Orwell's 1984. We're so used to being lied to and having words twisted into unrecognizable shapes that we may have lost the ability to differentiate between connotation and denotation. I recently came across a conversation about the word, "Tolerance". Someone mentioned that people were offended by the use of the word. I replied that I think a better word is "acceptance", since "tolerance" means putting up with something you dislike, while acceptance means coexistence without having to approve or disapprove. His response was, "Again, it's one of those things that means something different to different people." Case closed. End of discussion.
I'll admit that connotations are fairly subjective. Still, there's general agreement what words mean. If you want to communicate with other people, you don't just decide a word means something else. Sure, it seems fairly petty to be arguing about which word to use when there are larger problems in the world. But it's still not unreasonable to see that people can be hurt by the words you choose to use.
I've had a lot of conversations about the "rules of dating". (Granted not so many since I've been married, but bear with me.) Many of my (single) friends hate dating. They see it as fake and grueling and time consuming. Why can't you just say what you feel, they ask. Why do I have to wait before saying "I love you" or "how many kids do you want" or "your ass looks nice"? They don't want to play the "game". The truth is, it's not a game. It's more like a dance of death, where two people are trying to get to know each other without getting hurt themselves, guessing as much as they can about the other from the small bits of interaction they experience. Love at first sight is a very romantic ideal. But there are too many weirdos and stalkers in the world to not be scared by someone saying "I love you, can we move in together" on the 2nd date. We watch what we say because we have a lot riding on the other person not misunderstanding us. The same goes in real life.
There's so little trust in the real world, that when a group that has made my life miserable in the past says they'll be "tolerant" of me, I'd like to think they mean they'll respect me. But I'm not naive enough to dismiss the meanings of the word that say they'll permit me or endure me. Why not use words that are clear and inviting? Why not look for ways to get along instead of trying to defend outdated ways? Or do we just not want to get along? There's a certain belligerency in the air lately - people are looking for a fight. Where did that come from? Or was it always there? Or is "getting along" just some liberal claptrap that has gone along the wayside along with the Democrats?
Some of my coworkers were talking about child killings today at lunch. "Oh, the ones in Illinois?" "No, the one in Florida" "This is why I don't watch the news anymore" While I don't see how hiding from bad news actually makes it stop, I agree that with the 24-hour news cycle and increased news competition, TV news is trying to frighten us into watching, blowing every incident out of proportion (ahem, Runaway Bride), and causing us to become defensive. Lock the doors, don't talk to strangers, don't show kindness because the predators can sense any weakness. We've turned our country into the land of paranoia, and differing opinions into things to be tolerated, at best.