THE HOT BUTTON: Words, subconscious dialect shape perception of reality

Kristen Adorno

Do our words shape reality, or does reality shape our words?

That’s the question a professor proposed to my communication class the other day. At first I thought the answer was simple: Reality occurs, and then society puts words and names to it in order to communicate ideas. Then I realized I was wrong. 

Okay, maybe not wrong exactly, but my professor spent the entire class arguing the opposite of my position. (Note how the word wrong gives the idea that I was entirely incorrect.)

The specific words we use shape our perceptions of reality. Think about it.

I say the word “wife,” and you might think what? Submissive, feminine, devoted, maybe even home-keeper or “Make me a sandwich.” 

On the other hand, the term “spouse” tends to give a more neutral definition: There are two spouses, two partners in a relationship, who seem to fulfill equal roles regardless of gender. 

How about when I say “Republican?” You might think: conservative or Catholic (possibly even a few other slightly harsher adjectives, depending on where you see yourself on the political spectrum).

These are the definitions that society subconsciously instills in us since birth.

It is obvious from the elections that the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” alienate us. They divide people — people who should ideally share the same goal of strengthening and improving our country. They turn the country into red and blue. 

But the funny thing about the political spectrum is just that — it’s a spectrum. There’s a wide range between two political extremes. Yet we still give names. 

If you’re anywhere on the left, you must be a Democrat, and if you’re anywhere on the right, you must be a Republican. However, so many people running for office on different sides of the aisle share similar ideas while many fellow party members differ so greatly from each other in regards to the spectrum. Nevertheless, we give them one of these two titles. 

More importantly, we vote with heavy reliance on these terms. These are simple words that we’re voting on. We might as well be voting on favorite color (and purple is not an option). 

Words come with entire sets of standards, assumptions and connotations behind them. That is how words shape reality. We witness an act and we give a name to it, and that is how our reality is based. 

Take the act of a suicide bomber: One perception calls him a martyr, while another calls him a terrorist. Two different words with two completely different connotations are used to describe the exact same situation. The act was just an act until words were put to it, and then it became either a cause of praise and exultation or the inspiration for hate and fear.

In addition, we enhance and give power to these words by using them incorrectly. 

When we come across something we don’t like, we call it “gay.” When a friend is acting stupidly, we call him or her a “retard.” These are only two of the most egregious examples; there are dozens of other equally hurtful “miswordings” that we don’t even realize because we use them so frequently. 

Most people don’t realize that using a word in an incorrect, unfavorable context expands the meaning of the word. 

By using the term “gay” to refer to something unpleasant, you are expanding the meaning of the word to mean unpleasant things. Sure, it may just be a slip of the tongue, and you don’t necessarily mean anything harmful by it, but in reality you are harming and insulting millions of people. 

Words shape reality — insensitive, harmful words will shape a world of insensitivity and harm. Is that what you want?

I know it’s difficult to alter a subconscious dialect that is so deeply ingrained. I’m simply asking you all to realize and consider what you’re saying the next time you define something. 

Try not to throw words around so carelessly. Just take my word for it — there’s more reality in the words you say than in an episode of “The Jersey Shore.”

Kristen Adorno is a freshman communication major from Seaford, N.Y. She can be reached at [email protected].