Trigger Words

HOW MANY POTENTIALLY helpful conversations get derailed by evoking reactions that have nothing to do with the issue at hand? Whether dealing with personal or cultural issues, we would do well to be aware of how we can unintentionally incite those with whom we want to build relationships.

Some readers may be old enough to remember the comedy duo Abbot and Costello. In one really funny bit, Lou Costello is locked in a jail cell with someone whose personal history evokes surprising explosions. His wife ran off with another man and ended up at Niagara Falls. So every time someone says, “Niagara Falls” the man relives the bad association and attacks the one who said the trigger phrase. “Niagara Falls!” the man shouts, “Slowly I turned, step by step I came to him, and I struck him ...” and at this point the man begins to beat on Costello until he regains his composure. But every time Costello forgets and says “Niagara Falls,” he gets another beating.

We live in a culture where perfectly normal words pull a trigger for misunderstanding and overreaction. In their objective sense, they are merely descriptive. But they have been redefined as terms of threats instead of just nouns or normal parts of reality.

“Socialism” becomes not just an economic system that is different from “capitalism”; it becomes a trigger word that represents a threat or an inaccurate description of any economic aid, and thus it provokes an attack. “Immigration” has become not just a part of our melting-pot history and an integral need for a healthy economy; it has now been turning into a red-flag word that evokes an image of evil outsiders trying to take what is “ours.” And interreligious cooperation (especially with Muslims) for the common good? Watch out!

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July 2011 Sojourners
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