Language and Intent, Part 3 of 3: The Quiet Power of Inclusive Language

Though I fancy myself a committed Jew, I’m not always well behaved at services.  In fact, some friends would say that I’m downright snarky.  The historical targets of my snark are interpretive English readings that I find ridiculous, or liturgical choices that seem to me to be divorced from any coherent theory of prayer.  I know, I’m a snob, I should do better. Lately, however, I’ve been snarking about something new.

By way of background, Judaism is a religion of choreography, a lot of standing and sitting, and so many times in a service you will be asked to please rise or told that you may be seated.

For most of my life, I’ve ignored this.  Jewish law expressly understands that those of us that cannot stand do not have to, and it just wasn’t a big issue.  Lately, provided that I’m in a service where the low mutter between congregants is standard, I will often mutter to a friend something to the effect of “I decline” or “I choose not to” and when exhorted to be seated, I will point out that I already am.

Frankly, this habit surprises even me.  I’m nearly 33 years old and I didn’t make this juvenile joke very often when I was 10.  I started to think about why.

In just a few synagogues where I have been, the exhortation has been changed to “please rise if you are able.”  When I first heard this, I thought it a non sequitur.  It was a restatement of an idea so obvious that I thought that it simply need not be said.

My wheelchair is self-evident.  Even for people whose mobility impairment is not self-evident, unless the Rabbi or service leader were to be replaced with Kanye West, I don’t think that anyone is going to take someone attending the service to task for failure to rise.  There is no discriminatory practice needing to be fought.

And yet, this little change was having an effect on me.  The simple linguistic acknowledgment that I, and people like me, existed in the congregation, demonstrated by a simple word choice, meant something to me.  I’ve come to realize that my snark was my subconscious reaction to feeling linguistically excluded after being linguistically included.  These service leaders had raised the bar of my expectation.

In the first piece of the series, I wrote about the unconsidered intent of poorly chosen language.  In yesterday’s piece, I wrote about the meaninglessness of even the most proper language if divorced from meaningful intent.  The little change I have described above points to the incredible power of intentional language.

As I already said, I’ve known since early childhood that Jewish law did not require me to stand up.  The people adding a qualifier, therefore, have done nothing to change my behavior (I couldn’t stand up if I wanted to) and did not even assuage a nonexistent guilt.  What they changed was the subtle societal message that the choreographers of our services and framers of our instructions just weren’t thinking about people like me.  They taught me that at least one, the speaker at that moment, had thought of me, and framed his or her words accordingly.

This felt good.  I’m 33, and that had my fair share of accolade and friendship, and yet this four word acknowledgment of my existence spoke to me at a level that I didn’t even realize, and raised my expectations.

This, then, is the message with which I would end this series.  Poorly chosen language is hurtful because it conveys negative associations, or at best a lack of thought, and should be avoided.  Formulaic language, is better than actively negative language, but is pretty meaningless without intent, and can be trumped by even the wrong language with the right intent by those who just don’t know the formula.

The most powerful language, however, is that which conveys a respect and positive intent to include.  If there’s one prescription I can give, it’s to choose your language around disability carefully.  Not carefully in order to ensure knowledge of the latest buzzword, about which I could care less, but carefully to convey the attitude of inclusion, respect and love that I know that my readers all carry and their hearts.

As long as that is the principle, from my perspective, you can’t go wrong, because your language will find a way to convey your intent.  And, if you routinely convey that intent, you may raise the bar for everyone, even me.

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