What’s in a Name

A headline caught my attention on wbur.org today:

People Flee Frigid Cold, Fill Homeless Shelters

Homeless shelters in Boston are reporting that they’re filled to capacity as people try to escape the single-digit temperatures.

It’s remarkable what a difference language makes. WBUR is making an effort to refer to the homeless as “people,” rather than just “the homeless.”

Once we call them “people,” it removes the distancing that allows us to feel removed from the situation. When we think of them as people without a place to stay, it shows more clearly the gravity of the situation, and makes us feel an urgency about their plight.

Try this thought experiment: compare the first group of words to the second. Do you feel more empathy for the second group?

“slaves”         vs.          persons who have been kidnapped and forced to work as prisoners

“battered women”    vs.     women married to abusive husbands

“convicts”    vs.    men in prison

“the poor”       vs.   people with low income

“the disabled”   vs.   people with disabilities

“minors”    vs.    young people

“the elderly”   vs.  people over 65

Obviously, some of these expressions would be too cumbersome or inexact to use in regular conversation. Still, it is good to notice. When do our words allow us to forget the humanity of others? And when do they allow us to remember?

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