Words are the most powerful agents of both good and evil on the planet; they can impact feelings, change truths, create joy and incite war. Rudyard Kipling called words "the most powerful drug used by mankind." Spoken without forethought, they can cause intense harm. But when ingested by a being with the strength of internal convictions, they can be disarmed of their ability to injure.
Such is the duality of responsibility in the world of communications; I’m a writer, and strive to use words to do good. But similar, no doubt, were the aims of the advocacy group behind viral video KONY 2012, currently making waves across the internet - and the pundits are arguing vociferously as to whether that social-media-fueled frenzy is a force for good, or for further complications in the incendiary world of Uganda. And if you’d like, consider the words of Jesus Christ - fabricated or not - that have spawned across history both mass killings and the world’s largest religion, based on peace and love.
The key to these dichotomies lie in the responsibility of us as individuals to process communication according to our own inner fulcra of morality and self-awareness. The group behind KONY 2012 want you to believe that buying a bracelet to raise awareness will help solve issues in Uganda; not so. And the Catholic Church wants you to believe that being gay is an abomination in God’s eyes; also not so. But these words represent the opinions of individuals, and if we blindly mistake their opinions for truth, we lay our loved ones, our race at large, and ourselves at risk for harm. Information must be processed, altered, and ingested responsibly.
Kevin and I sat to dinner a few nights ago with family members; we urged them to cease using the phrase "given up for adoption" when referring to the child we’re expecting. The conversation revolved briefly around the potential harm that phrase can do to a child who shouldn’t want to be told that her mother "gave her up" - but rather than she chose us to parent her instead. The implication otherwise is that the child is not wanted.
When we were in upstate New York a few weeks ago to meet birth mother Jayne, we stopped into the local Macy’s to buy clothes. We got to talking about our adoption with the clerk, a really wonderful, engaged older woman who nonetheless asked me, curious about how adoptions progress in hospital situations, "When normal babies are born, it’s just the family in the room - are you guys going to be there?" Kevin and I cringed; she’d just uttered something that, under certain circumstances, could be taken to imply that our baby would not be "normal."
A few days later, when Kevin and I ran to the store to buy supplies for painting the nursery, the clerk chatted us up about the project we were starting; Kevin told her that "we" were expecting a baby, but clearly the clerk didn’t process his pronoun in the correct context, for she turned to me and said blithely, "And are you the uncle?"
I’ll wager, dear reader, that you’ve known the parents of an infant sometime in your life. You’re probably aware that parents tend to either shield their babies from germs (most often this takes the form of a antibacterial cloth shoved at you prior to holding the newborn), or they embrace the necessary, if uncomfortable, process of construction of a child’s immune system required to fend off infection later in life. Such is the responsibility of the parent when teaching their children about words.
The fact is, kids are going to hear all sorts of nasty things - just as they’re going to be introduced to all sorts of nasty infections - on the playgrounds, at the supermarket, even from our families and their teachers at school. It’s both admirable and important to educate people about what their words mean, especially when they could be interpreted in unintended, often harmful, ways. But as parents, it is also our responsibility to ensure our children already know their inner truths: that they were not abandoned, and that if they are part of an unusual family, they are all the more loved and special because of it.
As members of a minority community, LGBT parents are uniquely qualified to help children understand that we are all stronger for our differences. But this responsibility falls to every parent on the planet: to raise our next generations to increasing levels of tolerance and goodwill so that the circles of pain that so impact our civilization might buckle and break. It’s not about specific words, for those will ever be used for a variety of purposes, many of which are villainous. It’s about cultivating the strength in our kids to cling to their inner truths in the face of adversity, verbal or otherwise; and it leads by example.