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Monday, August 02, 2004

Words are meaningful or meaningless 

The senior minister at our church told me of a recent committee meeting in which he was scolded for using the wrong words. Our church is a member of the United Methodist Church. Our pastor kept referring to "conference askings" and was gently corrected to use the term "fair-share apportionments" in the future. A little later and out of habit - not intent, our pastor used the term "askings" and one of our revered retired ministers took a stern voice and corrected him publicly.

Big deal? Just words? The implication of conference askings is that the UMC is ASKing the local churches for support. The implication of fair-share apportionments is that the local church receives services from the UMC and the local church has a BILL to pay. Which implication would leave the most maneuver room for a congregation struggling with finances? Supporting someone else or a bill?

When I have taught childhood discipline and guidance, I have taken very careful steps in selecting words and phrases. Unfortunately, many students still misunderstand my message. I am from the Deep South. We use the term "beat" as a relatively non-valued term. A loving parent will beat their kids when they need it. That kid needs a beating. You may not like the word because of your background and the implications of the word "beat". It would be a different point to talk about a pop, paddling a child, swat a child on the rear-end, corporal punishment, or any of the numerous other wordings for applying a mildly painful stroke on a child's bottom. If we all witnessed the same event, yet used different wording, a third party would come to a different conclusion based on the wording. If you say "he beat his child", then he broke the law and will end up in our legal system. However, if you say "he sternly yet lovingly corrected his child", then he does not go to jail and could be a candidate for father of the year.

All that to say....

The use of children in news stories is appalling me. In Knoxville, last week we had a successful use of the Amber Alert system to find a "kidnapper". You should read the article here.

Is this really a case of kidnapping? Do most kidnappers leave their 4 children behind to kidnap 1 child? Do most kidnappers take the abducted child to a bar (dive, juke-joint, or honky-tonk would also be acceptable terms)? Do most kidnappers appear in public with the abducted child? Do most kidnappers drive a stolen car to the bar with the abducted child?

Without knowing the people in this story personally and having only seen the mugshot, I feel I am on solid ground asserting the following. Barfly 1 & 2 claim they left their child with Barfly 3. After drinking all night and arriving home in the wee hours, Barfly 1 & 2 went to bed. The next morning, Barfly 3 drove the car of Barfly 1 & 2 to a bar. Barfly 3 probably knew Barfly 1 & 2 had been drinking the previous night and expected them to sleep late. The other children were old enough to care for themselves, but Barfly 3 took the infant with her to the bar to care for it. Barfly 1 & 2 wake up, count their children and notice they are missing one. They call family, friends, and fellow barflies. After not finding Barfly 3 and their child, they call the police. The police have no term for "hungover barflies looking for child left with other barfly" so by default the incident is ruled a "kidnapping."

Sound harsh. Read the article again. In your mind, do you think that she would have returned home from the bar with the child? If not, then it was kidnapping. If you believe, as I do, that she would have returned home with the child, then the story here is nothing. The media has to cover the story and call the case a kidnapping because you cannot have breaking news if the headline reads "Barfly wanders off with child and found in bar".

Do you read the rather large set of warnings and instructions that are included with each prescription medication? Why? You could easily say that you trust your doctor and if he/she prescribed the medication then you are comfortable taking it. But medical mistakes killed more people in the US than gun violence. Even if you did read the warnings and instructions, chances are you would not understand most of it due to technical language. Yet, lawsuit after lawsuit, we are here. What was once easily printed on the bottle ("Do not take on an empty stomach" or "Do not take with milk") has now become a 40 page fine print maze. We all disregard the warnings on medication that could kill us because we have become immune to the effects of medical labeling.

The point - we need to use the right words at the right time in the US and we need to quit letting the presence of children in a story to cause us to lose common sense. If we yell "kidnapping" each time a child is missing, then the lesson of the boy who cried wolf is not too distant. Yes, we have the Amber Alert system. But we need to be mindful in our society of its use. If every child incident brings up an Amber Alert, the effectiveness of the system will decrease rapidly.
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