Impact of Language
Sharon Ellison, in her book Taking the War Out Of Our Words: The art of powerful non-defensive communication gives example after example of how we seek to hide and ‘protect’ ourselves through our choice of words. She demonstrates how our choices of words (tone and body language too) can cause lasting harm, prevent us from achieving what we say we want, and put us on a path of no return as we engage in power struggles instead of co-creation. Words matter!
So many young people use ‘bad’ words to make a statement about their ‘freedom’ and ‘adulthood’. They use the constant stream of epithets to declare that they are big, bad and powerful, at a time when all of those things are up for grabs. I remember doing just that at a certain time in my life. I stopped because I didn’t want people to think of me the same way as I thought about people who used foul language. I also sensed the weakness inherent in using language to demonstrate power when real confidence was lacking. After all, if I was really big, bad and powerful why would I need to use slang and cursing to prove it?
How Language Impacts Relationships
Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou held a rich discussion on the damage of using ‘it’. He described how distancing that word is in relationships. The word ‘it’ objectifies the world and makes everything an ‘other,’ an other that is less than, one that can be/should be ‘managed.’ Robin Wall Kimmerer of the Anishinaabe tribe makes that same point in a more lyrical and heartfelt way in her article, Alternative Grammar: A new language of kinship in the 2015 spring issue of Yes! Her solution, however, is one I find thrilling and very clever. There is no word for the ‘other’ that is relationship-based, in the English language. We need another word to replace ‘it,’ she writes. Her choice is ‘ki’ to refer to living things. Her example, “Oh, that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” Makes me feel warm and close to the tree. For me the difference is profound – and that’s the point!
Language and Climate Change
We ask ourselves what we can do to end global warming and climate change, but language is not the first place we look. Yet we will not make this shift without changing our relationship to the natural world and a good first place to start would be language. I challenge you to take this up in your own life. Replace ‘it’ with ‘ki’ – the plural is ‘kin,’ her example, “Look kin are flying south for the winter, come back soon.” (nice or what?) in your own speech. By doing this you will do a number of things. You will become a warrior for the Earth as you risk the taunting of your friends; you will engage yourself in your own reframing and in a rebuilding of your own awareness of your relationship with life; you will become a bright light – showing the way into the future; and, you will become a model for the kind of deep and lasting change we need to make – as a people – to ensure that we can live on this dear Earth for generations to come.
If you find this small task too daunting, then ask yourself how likely is it others will make the changes you see they need to make? Look into your own commitment and see what it lacks to make the difference that needs to be made. Listen to your own rationalizations about how this is ‘not important,’ too small to make and ‘real’ difference, or what other ‘reason’ you give yourself to not take this very small step.
Climate change requires behavior change, but we won’t change our behavior if WE don’t change our behavior. We gripe about changing light bulbs, about using alternative – anything, and we have ‘real’ and easy excuses about why our actions won’t make an impact, so we can justify our own reluctance to change. At the same time we desperately hope that someone else will make those changes, that someone else will do what must be done, that someone else will save us.
Change your language and change your relationship with all the other beings on the planet. If we can change that, then changing our actions will be a piece of cake. We will find it offensive to do harm to what we love. We will find it outrageous to kill a tree to make a parking lot. We will reduce our own water use so that fish and wildlife may live, as see that action as an obvious one. The first value of the sustainable Values Set is: All actions create the conditions that support Life. Our language should reflect that!