Shifting Perspective: Word Power

Consider the following brief life histories of two 18-year-olds:

A was a sullen, withdrawn child. She seemed predisposed to depression early in life, and caused her parents concern when she would run through their house claiming she was being chased by invisible monsters. She had school friends, but at different times in her young life she considered a doll she made out of leaves; a rock; and a small glass bottle to be her closest friends and most prized possessions. By the time she reached sixth grade, her parents were divorced. A lived closer to the working class part of town than the upper middle class areas many of her classmates inhabited. At 13 she was smoking pot with older kids in the neighborhood and was busted at a local discount store for shoplifting. In high school, A held her own but had some difficulties. Math in particular gave her trouble, and she nearly failed freshman algebra, chemistry, and geometry. She participated in very few extracurricular activities and seemed to shift deeper into depression. At one point an incident with a kitchen knife and a suicide threat caused her parents to seek professional help for her. By 15, A had a boyfriend who was already out of school and spent most of her time with a group of older boys, staying out with them until the morning hours. As high school drew to a close, A’s guidance counselor told her that she would not gain entrance into the state university system because of her poor math grades. A did not apply to any colleges during her senior year. After high school graduation she found a low-level job as a receptionist.

B was a precocious child who was reading adult fiction by second grade. In fourth grade she was allowed into the school-wide spelling bee – typically restricted to 5th and 6th grade students – because she had already completed the spelling and reading lessons through the 6th grade level. Junior high school saw B widening her circle of friends but also maintaining a reputation as an exceptionally bright student. In 8th grade she missed making the county spelling bee by just one word. By high school B was enrolled in honors courses and did well in them with little effort. She was one of only 3 students to earn the highest possible grade on the Advanced Placement exam in English. B was also an accomplished athlete, earning MVP honors for her performance on the swim team during her sophomore year. She participated in clubs as well, including the French Club, Key Club, and Oceanography Club. Her friends were mostly honor students who spent their free time enjoying board games and role playing games. During B’s senior year, her guidance counselor called her to his office to tell her that her score on the verbal portion of the SAT exam was the highest one of his students had ever achieved. At graduation, B chose to spend a year working at a local art gallery and saving money before starting college. She was accepted into a small but prestigious private college the following year.

Now that you’ve considered the stories of A and B, where do you think they will each end up in life? A sounds troubled, while B sounds accomplished. A has been involved with drugs, crime, and older boys, while B spent her school years studying and participating in extracurricular activities. A was a mediocre student who was discouraged from college by a guidance counselor. B was an honors student who was praised by a guidance counselor and admitted to a prestigious college. Yet, A and B are so very much alike – so alike, in fact, that they are the same person: me.

That probably wasn’t much of a twist for those of you who know me. The point I am illustrating here is the power of words. The details you pick out of a person’s life story can cause you to view them as a hero or as a villain; as a troublemaker or as a model student; as having a dead end path in life or as being on the road to a successful future. As I’ve said before, humans are pattern-seeking animals, and we don’t often look for all the contextual information we need to flesh out our first impressions.

The power of words to change our views is something we should be very aware of. It is relevant to so much of what we hear, see, and read in the world today, particularly in news reporting. I bring this up because of the different ways in which people are represented and how subtle those word choices can be. This pertains, in the moment, to the case of Michael Brown (and a few years ago, the case of Trayvon Martin). What we read is what we see, and both of these dead black teenagers have been portrayed as potential thugs and gangsters (and also as angelic innocents). There are multiple examples of how the power of words shapes our perception of events. If you want to find them, there are many articles and commentaries you can read about how people of color are portrayed more negatively in the media than white people.

I don’t particularly feel like dissecting the racial divide that still exists in our society in this post. Mostly I wanted to engage in the exercise of writing about my own life in two different ways. I challenge you to do the same, and to ask yourself how you might be portrayed if you were the subject of media attention. It behooves us to remember that every single person is more than a single event, a single photograph, a single conversation. They say there are two sides to every story – I say that’s the minimum. Let’s try to consider as many of those sides as we can.

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