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The Words We Choose: What Do They Say About Us?

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Last week’s tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC captured the attention of the nation.  Our hearts go out to the families, friends, members of the congregation and community that are, no doubt, still in shock over this senseless act of violence.

As the events after the shooting have unfolded some people are starting to note of the manner in which the media is portraying this shooter, and how it is different from recent portrayals of violent incidents.  Words such as “mentally unstable”, “lone wolf”, and “troubled individual” are commonly used in reports about Dylann Roof, the suspect currently charged with the nine deaths.  In spite of being 21 years old, he is often called a “young man”.

Contrast this with the terms used to describe Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or even Tamir Rice.  Frequently in reports regarding these individuals we heard terms such as “thug” and “criminal”.  There was little said about the possible mental condition of these young men (or in the case of Tamir Rice, young child), instead the focus was on their past criminal actions and their actions at the moment of their deaths.  Their youth was often dismissed or glossed over by the media.

Words are tokens we use to convey ideas and to communicate thoughts we have about everything we encounter.  Often our word choice reflects our underlying attitude towards that which we are describing.  For example, a person who fears snakes will often use words that reflect their dislike of them, even when attempting to describe the beauty of the more colorful members of the species, such as the coral snake or king snake.  A herpetologist, on the other hand, might choose words that convey their understanding of these reptiles, perhaps even their admiration for them.  Listening to the differences in word choices can give a view into the underlying feeling of the speaker towards that which they are describing.

What does it say about our media, and perhaps even about us, when we look at the words used in the description of Dylan Roof and compare them to words chosen to describe Brown, Rice and Martin?  Are these differences simply happenstance, or is there a deeper meaning, one that speaks more about us than about those we are describing?