"Another day like today, and I will be looking for a different job." thought Tony as he guided the car out of the park and onto the road away from the airport. "Relax," he told himself, "no one was hurt." but he could not stop himself adding "- this time." What about the next time? He was not sure he could go through that again. They had outsmarted the hijackers, the tragedy had been averted, but for a while the responsibility had weighed very heavily, and it had been him carrying the burden. It was his job. Passenger safety. His responsibility.
Fortunately this is just a story, but it is easy to picture poor Tony, sitting there, worrying and wondering. The passengers had been hostages all right, but so too had he. They to the terrorists' weapons, he to the terrorists' words. If only he had been aware of the difference between responsibility and culpability! No matter what responsibility was his, the culpability belonged to the terrorists and they alone should bear any blame. Had he understood this, he would have been free of a lot of emotional hindrances in his dealing with the problem.
Our command of words has a profound effect on the way we think. The deliberate interchange of "responsibility" and "culpability" can have real emotional effects. There are other words which are interchanged, often with a manipulative aim: consider swapping "love" and "trust", which encourages an assumption that they are the same thing. A loved one who accuses us of not trusting them often plays to this confusion. Remember, a loved one need not be a trusted one. Allowing the misuse of words can easily lead to woolly thinking, and an inability to understand and deal with a situation whether it be a hostage-taking or a bit of emotional pleading from a family member!
Even when the words themselves are understood properly and used correctly, there is still the possibility of improper emotional pressure. For an example of this pressure, consider talks with sales people who are trained to lead the dialogue so that you always agree with them, and are thus led to agree to buy from them. You are held to ransom by the dislike of saying "no" where you seem (but only seem) to have been saying "yes". You wouldn't want to be inconsistent and change your mind, would you? A salesman understands this more clearly than you do. Given that improper pressure can be generated without twisting the meaning of words, misusing words should be seen as doubly dangerous.
Here are few other woolly-word traps to be wary of. They seem harmless, but can have an insidious effect:
"Attractive", as in "Parents like their daughters to look attractive." If they think about it, these days most would rather their daughters were often not so attracting.
"Love", as in "I love strawberries!" This is shorthand (short-tongue?) where the true object is cunningly left out: it usually means "I love eating strawberries!" This phrasing easily diverts people from the real statement about self (I love eating...) to the implied object (here, strawberries). A person who loves strawberries is probably a gardening enthusiast.
"Quality", as in "Quality goods at unbelievable prices." Obviously the inference sought here is "high quality" and "low prices", or similar, but in the absence of the qualifiers no real contract is established.The trader can morally hide behind the understanding that he didn't actually say it was "good" or whatever.
This note was originally written long before September 11, 2001, while terrorist acts were usually on a smaller scale. It is worth pointing out that the word "terrorism" is itself subject to misuse, or at least to point out that its meaning is being changed. It used to be used to denote terrorising a third party; A attacked B by terrorising C. If, as seems likely, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers was a simple attack on the United States of America, it was not terrorism, it was a terrifying act of war. Considered as an attack on the globalisation world trade, it would be an act of rebellion. The word "terrorist" might have been used because of its derogatory connotations, but probably because we have now been led to think "It was terrifying, therefore those who did it must have been terrorists."
Different words came into being to allow clear thinking. Rebel, guerrilla, terrorist, traitor; all are different. Just as there is a need for clear thinking so there is also a need for the use of the correct words. If we mislabel people, we are unlikely either to understand them or to know how to deal with them.