Your words could help heal the world

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Today, word choice matters, not only at the highest levels of political power in our country, but in our everyday speech, no matter our political persuasion or good intentions. Since the election of Donald Trump, we have seen an increase in hate speech everywhere from public gatherings to social media channels.

The past two months have been especially traumatic for so many groups, including the Latinx community who were targeted by a gunman in El Paso after being called "illegal invaders" of this country; immigrants who were told to "go back where they came from"; and journalists who were deemed disseminators of "evil propaganda" by our president.

These examples are enough for us to make the case, as some already have, that words matter more than ever in the current American public discourse. We must, however, all be responsible for the intentions of our speech (or tweets) and also how they are perceived.

Often, even those of us with the best intentions or the most 'woke' social justice warriors among us, use terms that are unknowingly othering, that contribute to long standing societal stereotypes or that embed violence into our speech.

While it is impossible to ignore the rhetoric stemming from the most powerful office in the land, that must not hinder each of our efforts to employ empathy and respect in the pursuit of a more just and equitable society.

For our team at Elle Communications, word choice is arguably the most important part of each of our days as we work to shape messaging with and for activists, advocates, entrepreneurs, companies, nonprofits, and other groups striving to create positive change in our country and our world.

Here are four things to consider when thinking about the ways in which we choose to move through this world and the words that we use along the way.

Choose words that indicate the documented and scientific facts underlying an issue and its importance.

A new approach to communicating about climate issues is gaining traction, one that focuses on actual systems change.

In May, The Guardian declared that it would be changing its verbiage used in environmental coverage, replacing "climate change" with "climate crisis," to which a number of other media publications followed suit. "We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue," the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, went on the record as saying. "The phrase 'climate change,' for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity." Turning something important into a vanilla topic diminishes the importance of a proven collection of facts that are threatening. We've now had arguably the most powerful climate action year to-date in order to address this crisis: Sunrise Movement has gained steam and held climate sit-ins on Capitol Hill, millions of people have donated to save the Amazon rainforest, and another Global Climate Strike is planned during UN Week in New York City.

Ralph Nader, a four-time presidential candidate, wrote in a recent Boston Globe op-ed that "being able to control language can make a real difference in public opinion."

Choose words that encourage conversation with and respect for others with points of view different from your own.

Words can be polarizing and hurtful, they can cause detrimental policy change and fuel potentially dangerous zealots, but they can also be ripe with love and full of power. "During these difficult days [expressions of] love feels like a political act," said Mónica Ramírez, a renowned activist and organizer of the recent Querida Familia letter. The letter of love and solidarity to the Latinx community was published in The New York Times, El Diario, El Nuevo Herald, and La Opinión, took over the national news cycle, and received overwhelmingly positive response from community members and allies. "We are asking people to sign on to love -- and it is working," added Ramírez.

RELATED: Former Obama official 'connects the dots' between El Paso terrorists' letter and Trump's tweets

The nonprofit Kind Campaign, an organization that works to bring awareness and healing to the negative and lasting effects of girl-against-girl bullying, places such an emphasis on positive word choice that twenty-one pages of its educational kindness curriculum focuses on the ways in which girls speak to one another. And on how to apologize.

We have placed a great onus in the social, political, and cultural justice movements of our time on action-oriented moments, events, and marches. We release widespread "calls to action."

Examples like the Querida Familia letter and the global Kind Campaign curriculum prove that we must consider words and their positive intentions to be inextricably tied to these calls to action in order to create the change and harmony we want to see in our communities. And in our country.

Choose words that recognize individuals as individuals regardless of their ethnic group, educational or financial status, or political party.

Word choice can help to change the cultural narratives around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Native people—especially those who are women, queer, transgender, and/or disabled. We've seen excellent recent examples of these types of stories being elevated via film and pop culture, from "Black Panther" and "Crazy Rich Asians" to "Roma" and Ava Duvernay's "When They See Us." The organization Pop Culture Collaborative, which aims to bring authentic stories of marginalized communities into American pop culture, will have funded $7 million in grants by the end of this year to organizations, people, and projects that "encourage mass audiences to reckon with the past and rewrite the story of our nation's future."

When it comes to a political and culture issue like criminal justice reform, it is essential that we change the conversation and culture around how we treat, think, and talk about individuals with justice involvement backgrounds in the United States. Here there is a need to shift both the actual narrative and lexicon — in the media and in our communities — to eliminate words such as "ex-con" and "inmate" that stigmatize individuals.

Ronald Day, vice president of programs at The Fortune Society in New York City, wrote for GOOD that "we co-opted a negative vocabulary because it was convenient." His team created a guide called "Words Matter" to encourage people to think about those involved in the justice system in humanizing ways and to have a conversation with them rather than about them. "As someone who spent fifteen years in prison," wrote Day, "I know that a simple but effective way to help reform the system is to refrain from using negative vocabulary, words, and terms like 'felon,' 'ex-con,' or 'inmate.' Indeed, if we want to be a country that truly believes in second chances, we need to remove this negative stigma."

Avoid cliché words and phrases that embed violence or veiled insults in your everyday speech.

"Shoot it over to me." "Can you take a stab at this?"

I have uttered these phrases, or a similar versions of them, many times over the course of my career.

"Let's take aim at that goal." "Hit me."

The latter, a seemingly nonchalant quip to let a person know they can tell me their problems or ask me a question. This style of communication has been prevalent in my different workplaces, and upon starting to discuss this with colleagues and friends who work in other collaborative offices and professional settings in business, I learned that they, too, all use the same type of language.

After the Parkland shooting in early 2018, a colleague and I began to examine all of the instances in which our business contacts used these types of phrases. It netted out to an average of a few times a day so we committed to consciously working to reframe our own daily language. Maybe by telling someone to "fire away" or "take a shot at it," we aren't directly contributing to mass shootings or the monthly gun violence in places like Chicago, but we are inadvertently normalizing speech with subtleties and subliminal references to gun culture that could also be triggering. With the increase of mass shootings and now the recent release of the March for Our Lives Peace Plan for a Safer America, we owe it to survivors everywhere to update our vocabulary.

RELATED: Nancy Pelosi's blunt comments on climate change earned her a standing ovation in the new Congress

It is up to each one of us to ask ourselves this simple question: How will we each move through this world, in our communities, with our friends and families - not only with kindness and dignity, but also thinking critically about how we positively add to the collective dialogue?

Are the words we're using, ones that aren't meant to be hateful in any way, inadvertently normalizing violence or subversively contributing to gun culture? Are they contributing to an unconscious bias towards those who have had experience in the criminal justice system? Are they hurting or helping to save our environment? Are they welcoming to immigrants and all communities?

The words we use won't always stop a fight and might not fix the climate crisis, but with incremental shifts to our daily language, we might just change the trajectory of a certain situation, create some semblance of community where it was previously lacking, or make someone feel safe. And just maybe, your words could help to heal the world.

For those interested in learning more, the University of New Hampshire's Bias-Free Language Guide is an excellent non-partisan resource.

Silvie Snow-Thomas is the Vice President of Impact at Elle Communications, a communications firm that uses PR to elevate pioneers for positive change. She is also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

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