ROSH HASHANAH 5783 SECTION A PAGE 4
If losing weight were as pervasive as the thinning of our language, the obesity epidemic would vanish in a night. Words that once were rich in meaning have lost their resonance due to reflexive use. Either that, or they are transmuted to fit a political agenda or to obscure facts. Language naturally changes and develops as words acquire and shed connotations. The way the language is changing now, it cheapens our discourse — and ourselves.
I am informed that by my mere existence I am “privileged.” Indeed I was privileged, but only because of my extraordinary parents. I have great empathy for those not blessed this way, a deficiency that crosses all color lines.
Skin color per se confers no privilege. I learned of a white male who applied for a scholarship limited to African Americans. He was an American citizen and a native of South Africa. On the merits, he got the scholarship. But when his skin color was discovered, an attempt was made to withdraw it. He stood his ground. He met the precise criterion as an “African American.” I can think of no more absurd illustration of the way we have let categories define people and rob them of their individuality.
Justice: an elevated concept. Today, we have social justice, racial justice, reproductive justice, environmental justice, you name it; any ill so severe that its correction is not enough. Justice no longer means the righting of a wrong so that all parties to a conflict come into proper relation. Justice has been altered to mean the headstrong pursuit of a goal no matter what countervailing ethic, idea or genuine interest is abused along the way.
A “narrative” may rise to being great literature; in any event, it is descriptive. Now, however, it may be nothing more than my spin on things, and often replaces facts. Putin’s “narrative” of Ukrainian Nazism is counterfactual. So is the Palestinian narrative of the “catastrophe” of 1948 (Israel’s creation) as the justification of violence against Israelis. In fact, Arab violence against Jews in Palestine long predated 1948. Narratives overlook facts. The riposte, “you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts,” no longer registers.
A “journey” was something to aspire to. It might be realized once a decade or once in a lifetime. It might be learning to walk after a severe accident about which the doctors had said, “he’ll never walk again.” It might be the decades to become preeminent in science or humanities. Today, however, everyone is on a journey.
The distance to be traveled must be small, for if every twist and turn in life is a journey, no mountaintop looms.
We no longer respond to changing conditions, we “reimagine” them (“senior living reimagined,” “college admissions reimagined”). To reimagine implies that genuine imagination is ever present, yet very few are blessed with it. John Kennedy, who set the goal of a man on the moon within a decade, had an imagination. Babe Ruth, who switched from pitching to power hitting and changed baseball forever, had an imagination. Michelangelo had an imagination. Ditto, Jackson Pollock. Ditto, Mark Zuckerberg. But today? Anybody who gets something done differently with no broad significance is deemed to be blessed with the power of “reimagination.”
Once a highly profitable business or stand-out nonprofit earned a rare sobriquet, “team.” A true team won the World Series or invented a COVID vaccine. But now, any group, however functional or dysfunctional, is a team, and everyone who works for it is a “team member.” When every team is a team, no team is a team.
“Icon”: a beautifully evocative word virtually emptied of meaning, at least with reference to people. A real icon is rare. Examples: Anne Frank, Bob Dylan, Queen Elizabeth. In the news feeds of today I encounter an icon weekly, sometimes daily.
I also notice that virtually any relationship, no matter how insubstantial, is between “partners.” When everyone is a partner, no one is a partner.
“Pivot” is a genuine, perhaps courageous change in direction. Now, a politician who is caught in some type of contradiction or embarrassing locution “pivots” to an unrelated topic. “Pivot” is often reduced to an evasion or a simple change of mind.
Denver’s chief of police calls his department “a leader in sustainable, holistic and community-focused approaches to complex issues.” Translation, anyone? “Sustainable” has come to mean anything one chooses. Yet, if it’s not sustainable, it will leave no legacy. And no equity. And no identity. Translation, anyone? If you disagree, well, you’re mouthing a conspiracy theory.
We throw these code words at each other and no longer know what the code stands for. As we thin our language, we thin ourselves.
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