illegal

An adjective is a word that describes a person, place, or thing. A noun is a person, place, or thing.

Now that you know how adjectives and nouns work, see if you can guess which one of these people is bullshitting you.

Adjectives McGee: “It’s illegal to dance naked on the bus.”

Nouns Johnson: “Hordes of illegals are sneaking into the country to take your jobs, send their anchor babies to your kid’s school, and force you to speak Spanish in your own home.”

That’s right: Nouns J. is the bullshitter. You can tell because he’s using an adjective as a noun.

If you call a person who is living and usually also working illegally in the United States “an illegal,” here’s what you’re doing: You are talking about a person who is breaking a law as if he or she is the living, breathing, job-stealing embodiment of the forbidden. You’re saying a person can be against the law.

what is jargon?

Jargon is like an inside joke. It’s a word or phrase that means something to someone, but if you don’t know the backstory, it won’t mean much to you.

Lawyers, doctors, scientists, and other people whose jobs require a shitload of formal education use jargon so they won’t have to spend all day describing a complicated idea to someone who already understands it. If you’ve ever been to a hospital or seen one on television, you can appreciate why doctors need jargon. It’s a lot faster to say “I need eight million corpuscles of Vaxadrine and a canis major, stat”* than it is to say whatever you might have to say to a layperson to get the things you need.

Sadly, not everyone who uses jargon does so with your best interests in mind. In fact, some people use it because they don’t want you to understand what they’re saying.

Maybe they’re up to something really horrible, like killing innocent people in a war, so they tell you they did everything they could to reduce collateral damage. Or maybe they’re trying desperately to keep you from finding out that they never do anything interesting or important or complicated, so they say they’ve been busy applying pressure to tree-based ink-display solutions. People who talk to you like this do not respect you.

*Obviously I don’t speak doctor, but you get the idea.

it’s science: words can make you act like a jerk

By now some of you are probably starting to wonder where I get my information. Who am I to suggest that something as silly as the words you use (or the words other people use at you) could influence the way you think? Why would I say this? Why should you care?

These are excellent questions. Please keep asking questions like them until you get some answers. In the meantime, I have some bad news. Words don’t just influence the way you think. They can also influence the way you act.

Remember: People are predictable and easy to manipulate. It’s good for us to know this about ourselves.

Have you heard of this study? You should read the whole thing, but basically some psychologists in the 70s found that college students were likely to inflict more pain on fellow students when they overheard people in lab coats say the fellow students were an “animalistic, rotten bunch” of kids (rather than a “perceptive, understanding, humanized group”).

The students in this study overheard one offhanded remark about one guy’s opinion of a group of people they’d never met, and it noticeably increased the level of pain they were willing to inflict on the group. Okay? How many times have you heard Rick Santorum’s opinions about women today? Just something to think about.

special education

Hey, I’m not trying to go all Ricky Gervais on you guys, but now that everyone knows what a euphemism is, we should really have a talk about “special education.”

Special education sounds like a privilege for kids who are too good for regular education. Or at least that’s what it’s trying to do.

As every schoolyard bully knows, you don’t need forbidden words to hurt people. But once a word is forbidden, it becomes the quickest, easiest, laziest way to inflict pain. Also, any word can be co-opted for bullying purposes.

Special education and its sister term, “special needs,” were invented by well-meaning people who don’t like to think about what a horrible pain in the ass it must be to have Down’s Syndrome or autism or a severe learning disability in a school that isn’t set up to teach anyone too far afield of average. A side effect of using the same words to describe people with many different neurological conditions is that it might not occur to you to ask who benefits most from teaching them all in a single classroom.

conscience clause

A conscience clause is a legal loophole that lets you refuse to do part of your job if it violates your religious beliefs.

For example: Say you’re a pharmacist and your religion says birth control is wrong. If a rape victim approaches the counter and asks you to sell her a dose of emergency contraception, you are legally allowed to tell her to fuck off. You know, to put your conscience at ease.

The people who named the conscience clause want you to think conscience and religion are the same thing. Do you think they are? If you were a pharmacy manager, would you rest easy knowing employees you could not legally fire occasionally withheld medicine from people who needed it?

I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.

flip-flopper

Every time an asshole with a microphone calls a politician a “flip-flopper,” he is making the world a more dangerous place.

Often the asshole is another politician who wants you to think his opponent is A) stupid and/or B) an opportunist who will say whatever he thinks you want to hear. Sometimes the asshole is a pundit.

Assholes with microphones are not very good at asking questions. If they were, you might hear them say things like, “What made you change your mind about that, senator?”

“Flip-flopper” is an accusation. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that the accused might have a good reason for changing his or her mind. It’s also fun to say. Once levelled, it sticks like a traumatic childhood nickname. So rather than risk being the next “flip-flopper,” the people in charge of all our money and weapons conclude that they must never, ever be caught changing their minds about anything.

Oh, boy, though. Yikes. People used to think the earth was flat. I used to think “judgment” had an extra “e” in the middle. You probably used to think kissing was gross and so on. Sometimes we’re wrong. We won’t be right until we admit it.

pro-choice and pro-life

Take a seat, put your feet up, and have a nice calming cup of tea, everybody, because today we’re talking about abortion rhetoric.

Don’t worry: We’re not going to discuss our moral convictions here. We’re just going to talk about how the words we use make it easy for us to misunderstand and misrepresent each other.

As terms that are supposed to describe public policy positions, pro-life and pro-choice are both pretty ridiculous. Pro-life people obviously don’t place much importance on the lives of plants or bacteria or (with the exception of vegetarian pro-lifers) certain animals or (in some cases) people convicted of horrible violent crimes. And pro-choice people obviously don’t think everyone should be allowed to choose whether they obey traffic laws, pay their taxes, or pee on the sidewalk.

But it’s easy to see why each side picked its term. Pro-life people want you to think that opposing them means having a callous disregard for living things. Pro-choice people want you think that opposing them means opposing freedom itself. Like I said: ridiculous. Yet people are so committed to their own version of the story that they won’t even dignify the other side by calling it what it calls itself: They call each other “pro-abortion” and “anti-choice.”

Let’s clear something up, guys. No one is pro-abortion any more than anyone is pro-radical-mastectomy or pro-root-canal. And no one (except maybe Benito Mussolini) is truly anti-choice. Okay? Pro-life doesn’t mean “I hate and want to control women” and pro-choice doesn’t mean “I would murder a toddler if it threatened to inconvenience me in any way.”

I know a lot of pro-life and pro-choice people, and as disappointed as some of them may be to hear this, they agree on almost everything. In general, they love and support women and families. They believe women (and men) should have access to proper medical care. Really, the only thing they disagree about is whether a fertilized human egg/blastocyst/embryo/fetus is a person with rights that can trump the rights of a woman.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. The rest is just shouting.

what’s in a name: the committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice

What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? Maybe we can work out what it does together.

“Committee” sounds harmless enough, right? Committees never get anything done. Virtue and vice are old-timey ways of talking about morality, so probably this committee is a collection of endearingly nutty small-town conservative religious people who are always trying to get the city council to stop teenagers from dancing. Right? Something like that?

Oh, boy. No. Sorry. No. This is about to get pretty unpleasant.

Actually, the CPVPV are the religious police in Saudi Arabia, and the shit they do would be a lot funnier if it didn’t include beating women for showing off too much eye skin in public and trapping little girls inside burning school buildings.

Remember: Changing the name of something doesn’t change the thing itself. If you want to change the way something works, you have to go straight to the source.