Choosing Words Carefully

Rick Warren

Over the past two days, I’ve seen the above quote from Rick Warren floating around Facebook a good bit.

First off, I want to be clear that this was not something that Warren said with regard to the recent Supreme Court hearings (or the Chick-Fil-A thing last summer, when I also saw this quote used). After reading the original comment, seeing it used in that light is grossly out of context.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that a number of people have used it specifically when referring to the LGBT community. And I do find this troubling.

The quote, as used by those who are speaking about the LGBT community, talks about being labeled as fearful or hateful. Probably by hearing words like “bigot” or “homophobic” used in conversations surrounding the issue of equality. I can understand this, as those kinds of words can be hurtful when they are used interchangeably with someone like Fred Phelps who wears his hatred on his signs and your average Christian who thinks homosexuality is a sin and isn’t okay voting in favor of marriage equality.

I get that. Being wrongly labeled is hurtful.

But part of what bothers me about the above quote when applied to the LGBT community is that it misses out on the compassion that people feel like might be missing from the pro-gay side.

One word that will almost immediately shut down a conversation with a gay person or a straight ally is “lifestyle.” It is a tremendously loaded word when used in the context of discussing gay or lesbian relationships. It conjures up pictures of seedy hotels and anonymous sex. It’s thousands of partners and diseases. Every negative stereotype that one might associate with gay behavior is wrapped up in the word “lifestyle.”

In the midst of a call for compassion, the language used is not compassionate. While asking for more understanding in the midst of disagreement, it misses a basic piece in making the communication less disagreeable.

As I’ve found working on the Guide to Atheists series, the words we use matter. We can’t simply use words in whatever way we see fit, we have to look at how others use them as well. It’s not enough to say that we didn’t mean it that way, we have to listen to the group that is offended and adjust our language.

Justin Lee has put together a fantastic video about some of the other ways that Christians often misuse language when speaking to or about the LGBT community. I definitely recommend giving him five minutes of your time and checking this out.

I know that many of the people who have posted the Rick Warren quote are good-hearted people who don’t want to be seen as hateful toward or fearful of their gay neighbors. But one does not need to be hateful to still be hurtful. One does not need to be fearful to cause misunderstanding.

We don’t have to compromise our convictions, but we can still address people in a respectful and loving manner. And one of the first steps toward better communication is with the words that we choose.

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    Lifestyle has always sounded so slick and snake oil salesman in my head. I wonder how a Christian who likes this quote would hear the term applied to a Christian lifestyle. It just sounds so full of judgement and contempt.

    We don’t think about how our words sound to others. And if people want to be serious, they need to focus on the last word of this statement, because, strictly speaking, it isn’t wrong. It can apply to all manner of life’s situations. I don’t agree with returning library books late, but I’m not going to get all up in hur business about your late library book lifestyle.

    Compassion is missing. And far too much attention is spent on OuR convictions. What if we reversed that? I am willing to stand on love rather than any sort of conviction. (To be clear, I’m totally in favor of marriage equity…though my weirdly long comment sounds like I’m not. Maybe I need to sto and have a cup of coffee.h

  • Ed_Cyzewski

    Gosh Alise. I was going to say you were all relative and stuff, but now you’re saying that words have “meaning” and I don’t know what to think. ;)

    I hope I’ve never used the word “lifestyle” before, but I sure won’t now!

  • Cam

    The word “lifestyle” will definitely shut down any conversation I’m having with someone that doesn’t agree with marriage equality. It’s a condescending way of saying “You being gay is a choice that I don’t approve of” and anyone who knows anything about the LGBTQ community, knows it’s not a choice, it’s a very real aspect of who they are.

  • Kim Sullivan

    Excellent point.

  • Micah J. Murray

    Love this video. Sharing it on FB.

  • Christy McFerren

    Appreciate you so much, Alise.

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