From the Director: Word Problems

For the last few years I’ve led a Conversation Project called “From Saving to Serving: On Intervening in the Lives of Others.” The words in this title—“save,” “serve,” “intervene”—were meant to be provocative. I wanted us to look at efforts to do meaningful work in the world and to think about why words for well-intentioned work can so often seem wrong, can let us down, can rile us up. 

This program title did rile some people up, as have the titles of some of our other programs. And our staff has taken seriously these concerns as they arise, not only in our programs and publications, but in every part of our work, from exploratory meetings to board and fundraising activities to hiring processes. 

“Save” and “serve” are not necessarily bad or provocative words, but it makes sense that they provoke anger. We live in a time and place where we’re acutely—and belatedly and insufficiently—attuned to power differentials. Words that point to these differentials implicitly rather than explicitly, or accidentally rather than purposefully, cause anger. 

Over the years, I have felt myself and have watched my coworkers respond strongly to words related to power and identity. The wrong word makes us angry and suggests that the person who uttered it is complicit in a harmful system, that they talk and act in such a way that they are part of the problem (power wielded thoughtlessly or unfairly) rather than the solution (equal access to power). I’m fairly certain that I too, right here on this page, am saying things that will provoke anger, that my words, too, are sometimes felt to be part of the problem.  

Most of our value-rich words become dissatisfying before long, maybe because of overuse (“community”), maybe because their meanings are unclear no matter how rarely they’re used (“humanities”). And then there are the words whose meanings or implications provoke anger. Our feelings about these words, this language, seem to be a good sign of our continual striving toward something better, toward a more just way of living together. 

We want words to acknowledge the indisputable fact of systemic inequality and to ensure that no one is denied dignity. We want words that reflect real structural challenges and that recognize people as agents in their own lives. These expectations put a lot of pressure on the words we use.

So what to make of anger in response to someone who has uttered well-intentioned words? I think anger is mostly driven by a sense of injustice, which is mostly tied to a sense of worth. I’m angry because you don’t see that I deserve better. I’m angry because you think I am worth less than you. Anger is a spirited assertion of dignity, a response to a perceived denial of worth. And as much as it is an assertion about what is right, it is also a claim to be right, a vigorous, deeply felt claim that the other is wrong.

There’s no question that anger is useful. Still, I would like to cause less anger with my words. More than that, I would like to respond with less anger to the words of others. Most of all, I would like to direct my anger where it is most needed. I would like as much as possible to distinguish between my problems with words and my problems with the world, between fumbling efforts toward justice and efforts that seem to be directed someplace else.

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