Last summer, I completed an intensive speech therapy program and learned to speak for a second time. My stutter was first recognized in kindergarten, and even after several years of speech therapy, I continued to stutter.
Upon learning I was attending a program, many questioned the severity of my stutter. What these people didn’t know is that much in the way that Winston Churchill, who also stuttered, memorized his speeches to get around the problem, I often memorized words for casual conversation. I was a covert stutterer — not an entirely successful one, as my moments of stuttering revealed, but overall reasonably talented at changing my words when necessary. And after the program, it is perhaps accurate to say that my political beliefs are more likely to hold me back in a career in politics than an ability to speak fluently.
As a stutterer, I have had some encounters with insensitivity. I have gotten held up on my own name and hometown. I have been mistaken for being nervous. Those with speech impediments do not receive as much ridicule as other groups, but the label stutterer remains instructive. We use it in every day conversation — we jokingly ask those who are tongue-tied if they have a stutter. But I don’t find this offensive. Why? Because we live in a civilized society — we are generally accommodating of those with actual stutters, much in the way that we treat those with intellectual disabilities compassionately.
We more frequently demean our words by our lack of precision in using them than we disrespect people with disabilities.
It makes little sense to abandon labels in the name of political correctness. We need to acknowledge that words have meaning — often clear and distinct ones — and political correctness often does them a disservice. The repeated way in which we water down, couch and abuse our words has caused them to grow tired or, at best, ambiguous. We should not use language we find offensive, but I think one of my professors put it best when he told us, “not to use words that disguise our meaning.” Even if the words are harmful, they are not as destructive as the greater trend currently reducing words to meaningless letters on a page.
What is most disturbing is the fact that innocent, but important words are often the first to fall.
For example, take liberalism. The so-called liberalism of the New Left is quite different from that of my grandfather’s New Deal generation, which was distinct from that of the 19th century and earlier. Liberal has gone from meaning enabling individual agency to promoting equality of outcome. Ideas, of course, can change over time, but nowadays the changing definitions seem to reflect more than just new world views. Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh lecture on family values, but their actions do little to offer an inspiring example. We are told by President Obama that we need to come together while his Congress promotes a partisan bill. Slowly, the words they choose lose their meanings.
Ultimately, we have a choice. We can be afraid to speak about problems — including growing national debt, exploding entitlements and illegal aliens — that might offend some. Or we can be loyal to the meanings of words and unafraid to state the facts, however unsettling they may be and actually begin to address substantive problems.
Speech therapy taught me how to not change my words. Before last summer, I thought making last minute word alterations enhanced my efficiency when speaking. As it turns out, they slowed me down, poorly disguising the problem while dancing around it. I am now able to say both what I want and need to say, and I am better for it. Society could benefit from the same lesson.
Lauren Noble is a junior Pierson College.