Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Euphemisms, Wars, and Movements

Today on NPR I heard that "fewer people are going hungry in the United States than in 2003.

"Great!" I thought. "What do those numbers look like?"According to some study or other, "only" 35 million Americans experienced "food insecurity" in 2005, as opposed to 38 million in 2003. Imagine the headlines in newspapers around the country: "Less Hunger in America! Have a Guilt-Free Thanksgiving!"

I was dumbfounded. First of all, "food insecurity" is just another euphemism for that all-American, old-fashioned phenomenon called "hunger". Secondly, 35 million people going hungry---or close to it---every night in our country is not something to be boastful about. On the radio, the statistic seemed to almost be treated as something that might even engender optimism in the listener, until a commentator from an anti-poverty organization painted the picture in the starker terms it deserved. And that gap of 3,000 between 2003 and 2005---can it be trusted? Is it accurate? How were they counted? How many go uncounted?

Whatever happened to the War on Poverty? Why has the War on Terror superceded every other societal "war"? Why is there a War on Peace? A War on Love? On Understanding? Why do we even need these wars?

The Civil Rights Movement was not a war. Martin Luther King, Jr. made sure of that. It was a "movement", bringing notions of change, forward thinking, and the future. The Gay Rights and Women's Rights Movements did declare "war" on the status quo, in a way, but again, "movement" was the operative word.

Labels, names, and titles only do so much, and euphemisms blind us to reality. Of course, language helps us to frame our struggles, contextualize our goals, and rally around a central cause. Language and the use of words is part and parcel of the human experience and we should embrace it as a potential force for good. That said, when we say "less hunger in the U.S", let's be realistic about what that means. Luckily, NPR was thoughtful enough to counter the statistics with a dose of what they truly mean. Other news venues would simply report the shiny, happy news and move on to the next item, never taking the time to contextualize or critically examine the data and its announcement.

So, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meals next week, many of us will think of others less fortunate than ourselves, or offer prayers for those without food and a table upon which to serve it. Some of us will give money to feed those less fortunate, and still others will spend the day serving those in need. Whether one serves on Thanksgiving Day (the day when countless volunteers pack the soup kitchens) or on any other day of the year is beside the point. Compassion, awareness, and a realistic view are what is most needed at this historical time. Euphemisms and labels do little to assuage suffering, often serving instead to mask the reality and cushion the blow for those too frightened to truly accept what's on their doorstep.

If we truly have a need for a new war, maybe it should be a War on Ignorance. There are many opiates of the masses, and it seems ignorance born of fear is the most blissful opiate of them all. Let's declare ignorance a thing of the past, embrace Truth, and cast euphemisms aside for the chaff that they are.

Food insecurity? It's Hunger and Poverty, my friends---don't let them fool you. And if that doesn't threaten national security, I don't know what does.
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