This is my latest for EthicsDaily.com. Click here for the original post.
It is common knowledge that the perennial Food Network star, Paula Deen, has used a condescending and derogatory term toward African Americans and spoken warmly of the world of the genteel antebellum (pre-Civil War) South.
Before this news-making revelation, Deen and her brother had lawsuits brought against them for sexual discrimination by a white employee.
To the most recent revelations, TV commentator and satirist Bill Maher said, “It’s just a word, it’s a wrong word, she’s wrong to use it, but do we always have to make people go away?”
Yes, I agree. It is just a word. But words still matter. If it is just a word, why are so many people outraged, offended and upset? If it is just a word, why did the Food Network drop her shows and Smithfield Co. drop her as a spokesperson? At last count, several other food and publishing businesses have severed connections with her business.
If it is just a word, why are there so many ramifications? There are at least two reasons. First, Deen is a popular celebrity chef and people tend to buy her products, come to her restaurants, buy her books and watch her on TV. Her name has become a commodity stuck on all sorts of foods and kitchenware. Her entire career is based on a connection with old-time Southern culture.
There is a lot more going on here than just words. Maher’s career is, by comparison, based on his words, persona and reputation for advocating free speech. Actions taken against any form of “free speech” are, indirectly, an attack on his turf. His television show is centered on talk outside the box. He has no acts, no dance, no intentional comedy like the popular “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” Maher’s show is an exchange of words.
If that is so, how can he say, “words do not matter”? Maher’s words have helped him build his television career.
As children, we grow up with the schoolyard phrase: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” Children say this because they know, too well, that words may hurt them.
If we look back in our lives, we will realize that there were certain words that people said to us that have stuck with us for a long time.
They might be negative words of pain or hurt or positive words of hope and mercy during a difficult journey. At those times, we became aware of the power of words. As we come to understand the power of words, we must internalize it in our own lives. How many times have we used words purposefully to hurt or destroy others? We are all guilty of this and this is what makes us realize the power of words.
Words influence our thoughts and our ideas. Words shape how we see the world, by causing us to stress certain things and ignore other things.
Once we realize the power of words, we recognize that we can actually start to embrace one another through words.
Our words should be used for moving us and making us into meaningful people who seek to encourage and motivate others. Once we realize the importance and power of our words, we can become more careful with what we say because we know that what we say matters.
Through a 14-year television show and commercial presence, Deen became a role model to millions of people. She has learned the difficult lesson that while our words and actions can create and build empires, they can break down and destroy empires, too.
Words can recall and add vigor to a dying stereotype, so we need to weed and prune our language to prevent negative images and attitudes from returning from the grave. As people reflect upon Deen’s choice of words and the implications of them, they should recognize that it wasn’t just her words that got her in trouble.
It was also her attitude toward African Americans as illustrated in her desires to have an antebellum wedding for her brother. Words and actions seem to be tied together. We know that Dean isn’t the first to say racially negative statements and she will not be the last.
It is unfortunate that her employees may suffer by losing their jobs as a result of her thoughtless words. But words do form our thoughts and ideas. Words matter. Words are powerful.
We all need to choose our words wisely to help build the reign of God and not tear it down.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary. She is the author of Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit (Palgrave Pivot), The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Pilgrim Press).