How Words Alter the Public Debate

Isn't it amazing how events with little or no relationship to one another can meet to form one very coherent question? Okay, maybe that only happens to me, most of the time but, nevertheless, it has recently come to that for me.

A fellow employee wrote to me recently with a viewpoint concerning the welfare "debate" which, while I thought I had dealt with it somewhere along the way I found that I had ignored it completely, much to my shame. At about the same time, I discovered that a different problem was being described in two totally different ways by different professions but which completely altered the direction that the debate should be moving.

The welfare "debate" has, particularly since 1994, been dragged down into the mud by the Right's constant refrain of "welfare mothers" and "welfare cheats" and the like. Granted, framing the topic in this matter forces one to think about the negative aspects of the program because both of those descriptions produces a mental picture of fat, pregnant, lazy women sitting around watching soap operas on TV while their hundreds of little bastard rug rats run around the house dirty and naked or else hanging out on street corners selling either drugs or their bodies.

Confining the debate to such a low level becomes very easy once that segment of our population has been demonized and separated from the rest of us God fearing, hard working and moral Americans. The Right has been able to use this slimy and offensive trick to make people hate other races and the poor and teachers and unions and workers and on and on for the last few decades without much difficulty at all. It was so easy, I believe, because whenever America nits a speed bump on the way to tomorrow's greed, we immediately go in search of someone to blame and to segregate until that speed bump is history, at which time we conveniently forget our boogiemen until the next time we have use for them. The Right, I must admit, has become expert at the art of finger pointing and providing the American people with someone to blame for their, and our, stupidities.

If, instead, the welfare debate centered on the fact that raising children is not only the most important skill and profession on earth and that it is also one of the hardest to do well, perhaps those mothers who find themselves in poverty could be viewed exactly as such. Very, very few people enjoy living on the pittance that welfare grants and most would far rather be living comfortably and to be gainfully employed. Most, I believe, would rather view welfare not as an end but as a means to an end. If, instead of such derogatory labels as "welfare mother" and the like, we were to frame the debate as one of using welfare to provide the opportunity to achieve a better education or a job related skill, while also providing whatever is necessary for child care providers to earn a living caring for the children while these mothers work or learn, perhaps those greedy and clutching Republicans who so hate paying their fair share would find themselves without an excuse for their hatreds.

On the same type of subject, the Right has been able to frame the debate over drug use by using negative and belittling terms such as "drug abuser" and "drug addict" and the "War on Drugs" and the like. These phrases have then been associated with so many societal horrors such as a rising crime rate and declining production rate among workers. Again, by separating these souls with stereotypical slurs, the Right has offered Americans a way to isolate people with addictive personalities and to group them into evil and vile herds of "druggies".

The psychiatric profession, meanwhile, having no political ax to grind, uses the term "chemical dependency" to describe those Americans who have fallen prey to their genetic make-up. This term isn't used by the Right most likely because it would also be too much of a self-describing terminology due the abundance of alcohol and tobacco in Washington. Also, how can you defend the tens of billions of dollars for more police and prisons and the like unless you have already created a climate of unbelievable fear? Without that atmosphere of anxiety, America might come to realize that it is only destroying the lives of its own sons and daughters and neighbors and friends in its blind "War On Americans Who Have a Chemical Dependency". Once light begins to shine into the filthy shadows our political "leaders" have created at the behest of the tobacco and alcohol industries who own their souls, this nation may well rise up and demand that new and more productive and far less punitive solutions be explored. Then, since Congress is so adamant that there are so many jobs for the poverty stricken mothers that they have spitefully thrown off of the welfare rolls, perhaps it can also point the way to new career opportunities for the thousands of law enforcement personnel who will immediately find themselves unneeded and unemployed.

Gentle readers, these two small but significant terms en capsulate most everything that is wrong in America. Those without mercy or goodness in their hearts have found ways to force an important and expensive debate into the gutter without allowing intelligent people the opportunity to openly see the problems and the right to discuss the various options to solve that dilemma. We could cease the insanity of building more and more prisons and hiring more and cops by simply turning the debate back into one of "How can we assist those women and children in their quest to rise above their poverty and what programs and medical research do we need in order to assist those with addictive personalities to rise above those addictions?" Those are the only two questions we need to raise. All others only cloud the issues and harm Americans while filling the coffers of politicians.

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Copyright 12/10/98