In the last several weeks I have heard from people who lives on the margins of our society; people living with mental illness, the poor, persons of colour, First Nations peoples, express to me they are tired of “useless words, we want action.” Yet our culture’s approach in this last decade has been to focus on our words, to get our language right and to leave the action to others. I see it in schools, in churches, in politics, in non-profit agencies, etc…this focus on words. It has led to a whole cottage industry of clichés, slogans, catch-phrases, all of it positive, non-judgmental, optimistic.
There has been success in this approach, the ugly language of easy judgmental, mean slander of whole groups of others, cultural stereotypes directed against whole groups of people, this was wrong and it needed to change. People now like to disparage the phrase “being politically correct” but I think that attempt has been wholly correct and has paid direct dividends in the way we talk about each other and treat one another.
My beef with the “positive” words as opposed to messy action approach is that it is both unreal and lazy. Life is hard and working through complex and challenging issues as they present themselves requires more than clichés, slogans and catch-phrases, it means working through the complicated matters of both victimization and victimhood, it means being dependable and not dependent, it means demanding respect and giving respect, in short it means being self-aware that you want to be treated as you treat others. The sad reality is that many who once were treated with disrespect and demand change do no always treat others who were similarly disparaged with respect. When respect is framed as a personal crusade it is easy to see the cause as your own, or related to the peoples who share your challenge. But what of other peoples who are also put down and generalized about? Why does the respect you demand not include them too, others too?
That’s why working things out interpersonally or in society as a whole requires more skill and more effort than just language and words. It requires systematic change, not just for “me” or “we” but for “us”. One of the reasons some people get so angry with a lack of progress is that they expect that progress to go 100% their way. But progress is often not a zero sum game, there are many actors involved and many good causes to embrace and account for. Justice is not just for me, it is for all who are stigmatized.
The other thing that concerns me is how everyone now wants in on the grievance train. Instead of seeing that some have been left out and need new respect and support many of us in the privileged places have opted to say that we too require such consideration, even when such grievances have tenuous grounding in reality. Justice and action requires sorting out who is in need, what needs to be done and who needs to give up power to make room and space for others to thrive. By definition every single person cannot be marginalized or aggrieved.
Words are easier and action is harder. But righteousness demands both.