A Four-Letter Word Worth Avoiding
In our ever more contentious society, a small step toward greater civility
Like many of my neighbors across the western suburbs and around the country, I have a plasticized cardboard sign on my front lawn. Mine has been in the same spot since 2016. Through fall, winter, spring and summer, it has remained staked into the ground in front of the evergreens, sometimes bending in the wind, rain and snow, but never breaking.
“Hate has no home here.”
It’s a simple non-partisan declaration to signal this spot is welcoming to all persons. The movement began in north Chicago and signs are now available on Amazon — like just about everything
else in the universe.
It’s easy enough to plunge a sign into the dirt on the front lawn. It’s harder to eliminate the word from our everyday vocabulary. But I contend it’s worth a try because the stakes are so high. Such words — this word — move to action quickly and irreparably. And this word erases another four-letter word — safe.
Many of us throw the word “hate” around as if it’s not incendiary or costly to our dignity. As if it is meaningless. I have used it for salad dressings that are too tart and shoes that pinch my feet. My sons, when they were younger, used it to describe how they felt about science homework, hardboiled eggs, rainy days, video games that were too easy, and yes, sometimes other kids at school. “Hate is a big word,” I would say. They would self-correct and say, "Well, I really don’t like it.”
The rise of hate crimes is measurable in the last few years. The impossible-to-imagine frequency of mass shootings in public places including workplaces, schools, stores, malls, places of worship, movie theaters, street corners, concerts, festivals and parties is not just stunning, but it has made me change how I think and how I act.
I shop for groceries and run errands early in the morning and quickly. I mostly decline invites to outdoor festivals with friends. I no longer honk — at anyone, even if they are stopped in the car in front of me texting at a green light, not paying attention. And I try never to say the word “hate.”
Most of all, I do not consider myself immune to random acts of hate and violence. I no longer implicitly trust my former self-reassurances that as long as I don’t take risks outside the boundaries of what had been considered sensible behavior, I will be fine. For me, it doesn’t matter anymore about where someone is or at what time. Because time and place are no longer guarantees that we are protected from hate.
The recent mass shootings from Texas to Ohio and the roster of killings in Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, Nevada, Washington and Illinois have shaken me in a way that I can’t seem to ignore, and confirm for me that geography does not insulate us from hate and all its repercussions.
I also understand completely my former sense of security was a full-on demonstration of the privilege of who I am, how I grew up, and where I now live — in a home I love in a western suburb that is quiet and peaceful. This cumulative privilege granted me a feeling of safety that seemed automatic, not earned or assigned. Just assumed. And I assumed it would last forever.
Our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces are at the start of a school year, as part of a generation who have regular safety drills in the case of an intruder. I know that I never practiced hiding in a closet with my teachers in order to stay safe.
What I know is that “hate” is not a word that begins a conversation; it is a word that ends civility and begins a spiral toward harm. And we all use it too much — about books we have read, movies we didn’t like, food that did not meet our standards in a restaurant we just visited, even people who annoy us, as people sometimes do.
The word is not innocuous applied to anything or anyone. Making the word itself rare or non-existent in all our conversations may at least help us acknowledge the severity of the word on its own, the power that it holds.
My suggestion is that each of us subtract that four-letter word from our vocabularies completely. Because it is not innocent. Its overuse minimizes its potential repercussions and makes the word the norm in everyday speech and in everyday life. It can’t be.
It may not be enough, but I suggest that with those four letters eliminated from our lives and the daily demonstration that they have no home with any of us, “hate” can be replaced by another four-letter word that is much more welcoming — safe.Edit Module