“… nothing in the world … has as much power as a word.” Emily Dickinson
Once upon turbid waters, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio, and moms—mine and many others—believed Lake Erie into which the river oozed during the 1950s was a source of polio. These days, some swear atmospheric carbon overload is BS, and global warming is a “chinki” plot. One might react to such notions by railing against ethnic or climatological ignorance, but Shakespeare demonstrated a knack for superior wit and syntax in a heavenly quip from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “My soul is in the sky.” The bard didn’t have climate change in mind, but his choice of words shows how it is possible to elevate thinking, or at least the tone of dialogue.
In everyday life, fiery interactions among friends and family members are frequently fueled by linguistic choices and interpretations of meaning. We think. We believe. Moreover, we think what we believe with conviction is true, but often in the heat of the moment fail to consider underlying currents channeling how an expression is phrased and received. Rapid-fire rejoinders do not generally arise from a foundation of verifiable evidence.
One person’s personal or political truth differs from another’s, and we all tend toward bias when emotionally aroused. So what are some alternatives to venting verbal venom as a countermeasure when confronted with conversational caca? Are there helpful ground rules or examples?
A case can be made that at least three words in the English language should not be used at all in civil discourse among kith and kin, let alone strangers: the “N” word, the “C” word, and the “F” word for fag. Of course they are used with sundry justifications conjuring cultural, creative, comic, or constitutional rights. But regardless of partisan persuasion, wit, or lack thereof, “… right and wrong are fuzzy concepts,” as Isaac Asimov observed. Less ambiguous are the advantages of minding one’s words and weighing their implications. A sense of humor bolstered by willingness to tolerate some ambiguity or irony doesn’t hurt either, but we adore rationalization when indulging rhetorical biases.
“ … Hamlet … never once doubts the reality of the ghost,” D. F. Wallace remarked. Many souls drifting among us today do not doubt the validity of bogus issues, such as a conspiratorial prohibition by the left against wishing someone a merry Christmas, or the perception of near-universal anti-intellectualism and racism among conservatives. Both camps are guilty of confirmation bias, and plenty of kindred ethers cloaked in conceptual certitude haunt the drafty corridors of many a settled mind.
The issue isn’t so much good cop versus bad or right versus wrong but, rather, some forethought regarding decency in expression. In matters of contempt versus civility, examples abound in literature and related arts and sciences that transcend—or at least pre-date—the manufactured problem of political correctness much in the manufactured news of our ostensibly “post-truth” era.
Let’s play a game and turn base expressions, or churlish or insupportable ones, around. The following table offers examples of verbal or tacit alternatives to conversational incivility. Sources for the entries—droll to sober—range from Aristotle’s musings to Margaret Mitchell’s cultural commentary in Gone With the Wind. Like coupling Shakespeare’s soul-in-the-sky with our contemporary concept of climate change, some observations in a given column were not offered to address concepts in the adjacent column; nevertheless, creative pairings may suggest novel, even superior, interpretations of ancient or contemporary epigrams. Are all expressions on the left toxic and everything on the right curative? Hardly, depending on context. Are some suggestions gallingly cerebral and others too telegraphic adequately to address nuance? Certainly, but semantics on any level, earthly or celestial, can be entertaining.
At least one individual I know believes guardian angels sporting fluffy, feathered wings flit and flirt among us, and that finding a feather proves an angel is nearby. Nietzsche wrote, “There are various truths, and as a result there is no truth.” Well, yes and no, but even the most peevish provocation can be turned on its head with a few, well-chosen words.
Alternatives to Poison
|Darker conceit||Brighter interpretation|
|Ni**er!||Barbaric yawp (W. Whitman)|
|Feminazi||If the word [concept] doesn’t exist, invent it (Baudelaire)|
|C*nt||Gentlemen do not like forward girls (M. Mitchell)|
|All fags are sure to go to hell||Abhorred Styx, the flood of deadly hate (J. Milton)|
|Wingnut, redneck, libtard, wacko, nutjob, moonbat, snowflake, thug, troll||If you can’t answer a man’s arguments … you can still call him a vile name (Elbert Hubbard)|
|Mine is the one and only true God||Man…makes gods by the dozen (De Montaigne, Essays)|
|My beliefs and absolute truth are one||God and the imagination are one (Wallace Stevens)|
|The only true faith is blind faith||Reality can be beaten with enough imagination (Twain)|
|Intelligent design and creationism||If facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts (Einstein)|
|Welfare is sucking the economy dry||I was hungry and you gave me food (Matthew 25:35)|
|I support the disenfranchised||Love the poor? Name them. (Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez)|
|Perfectionism is anal||God is in the details (Mies van der Rohe)|
|Alternative facts||Empirical (per Merriam-Webster dictionary) evidence|
|The unfalsifiable; “proving” the null hypothesis||Statistical uncertainty and certainty (in all science)|
|Anybody can write anything nowadays||Peer-reviewed articles (e.g., Nature, Science, JAMA)|
|Anybody can say or argue anything nowadays||The Baloney Detection Kit (Carl Sagan)|
|Everything is a choice arising from free will||Humans = 100% nature + 100% nurture (D. Hebb)|
|post hoc ergo propter hoc||Correlation does not imply causation (logic)|
|We know so much now||Multiverses, dark matter, dark energy (astrophysics)|
|Excessive cleavage or plumber crack||Everyone likes to look down on someone (B. Weeks)|
|I’ll bet you anything that …||Materialists and madmen never have doubts (G.K. Chesterton)|
|Social and Cultural Propositions|
|Determine never to be idle (Thomas Jefferson)||In Praise of Idleness & Other Essays (Bertrand Russell)|
|There is nothing better than hard work||Life must be lived as play (Plato, F. Schiller)|
|Wisdom of the common man||The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter (Churchill)|
|Argumentum ad hominem||Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking (R. W. Paul)|
|Bookstores are obsolete||Fiction is a necessity (on literature, C.K. Chesterton)|
|Hate-talk radio and Internet bunk||We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness (G. Orwell)|
|“No, you’re the hypocrite,” said the hypocrite||The psychology of projection (Freud and company)|
|Cyber thoughts and prayers||The Internet can make you stupid (N. Carr)|
|Ad saturation and rampant commercialism||Ask yourself: is this useful? (Minimalism: A documentary film)|
|Nonstop warfare against (anything)||An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind (Gandhi)|
|USA, USA, USA!||Nationalism has a way of oppressing others (Chomsky)|
|Hell of urban living (if rural)||Perks of urban living (if urban)|
|Hell of living rural (if urban)||Perks of living rural (if rural)|
|You can never have too much money||For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:1 KJV)|
|Some people don’t deserve any money||The lack of money is the root of all evil (Mark Twain)|
|Money||Everything popular is wrong (Oscar Wilde)|
|Sure, I do that, but it’s not really me||We are what we repeatedly do (Aristotle)|
Robert D. Kirvel is a Pushcart Prize (twice) and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in England, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in several dozen U.S. literary journals, such as Arts & Letters. His novel, Shooting the Wire, is being published by Eyewear Publishing, London.