I am making an exception and giving something up for Lent. That thing? Saying the R-word. The reason? I have had the privilege of working with the Special Olympics on their campaign to end the use of this hurtful word, a campaign called Spread the Word to End the Word that has taken off across the English-speaking world today.
First a disclaimer: I'm Jewish, and I don't celebrate Ash Wednesday or Easter. My family doesn't either (in fact, my mom went up to someone this morning and said, "Hey I think you got some shmutz on your forehead"). I am the kind of person who says the things that are on my mind, unfortunately sometimes, as we all do, without completely considering the consequences first or how others might feel as a result. And yes, I am guilty of having said the R-word. But I am taking the pledge to End the Word today because after reading powerful stories from individuals like John Franklin Stephens and John C. McGinley who experience personal pain every time they hear that word, I realize I need to be part of the solution in the most active way possible.
You would think that not doing something, or not saying something, would be one of the easiest ways to be active. Not the case. Having studied linguistics in college, I know that after you use a word, and even more so the more often you use it, it starts to carve out a pathway, a channel of its own, in the part of your brain that links your mind to your mouth muscles. A simplification to be sure, but here I am, a writer and not a scientist. Yet at least. Once that pathway is carved out, it is a difficult thing to un-carve it, to go backwards. But that is what I am going to make a mindful, conscious effort to do, starting with Lent and continuing to every day after.
Stephens and McGinley, and others who have lent their public support like Ann Shoket, the Editor in Chief of Seventeen, are making an important argument that extends far beyond the R-word and Save the Word to End the Word day today. They are making the argument that words have power, which is a statement I have found to be deeply true. Another thing I learned in college: in Medieval times, people believed that words had so much power that they could make things happen all by themselves. You can call this magic. Incantations. Spells. That is why they believed in witches, which caused a lot of problems for nice ladies living alone! But I digress. The Medievals were right in that words have magical power in a way that is both social and scientific. Saying the R-word says two things: it says the R-word, and it says that it's okay to say the R-word to anyone who hears it. Double, double toil and trouble there.
As a writer of the journalist variety, I believe strongly in freedom of speech. At the same time, even the legal protection of speech comes with limitations when safety is at stake. It is an emotional safety -- and yes, sometimes physical safety -- that hangs in the balance with the choices we make in our personal speech. When we are using a language that has nearly 200,000 words in it, as the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that ours does, surely we can be creative enough to find something else to say -- as we have done before with other groups, not to be politically correct so much as to be mindful human beings interacting in the 21st century -- and do the individual, psychological hard work and channel rebuilding that comes with it. We millennials are adept at multitasking, or so I'm told. Let's add this to our to-do list, near the top. There is no more appropriate day than today, Ash Wednesday, no matter what your beliefs are, to be conscious of what you say. And at no cost to you! As far as I'm concerned, chocolate and red wine are still a go.