Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Power of the Word to Keep You in Your Place

Words are powerful things. They can perform the equivalent of miracles or be horribly destructive, depending on who uses them, when and how they are used. Sit at a religious service and you are prepared for emotional, spiritual elevation. Sit at a political rally, or more properly stand at one, and you are lifted by the ire of the speakers, provided they are gifted and truly as worked up over the issue as you are.

But we don't have to be in these specific environments to be subjected to the ebb and flow of emotion or lifted/dejected by the power of words. True, talented writers do a great job and so do photographers and filmmakers. Whether visual or verbal, it is the spoken and the unspoken that drives us and often we may not even be aware of how they are influencing us. We take it in, perhaps pause for a moment, and then it's gone and we don't give it a second thought. But there is something going on just as the inner core of the earth tumbles and boils, so do we but this may be so subtle that we are never given pause to ponder it further.

I recall a sociology professor standing in front of our rapt class one evening. A young African-American man,  he was discussing how we keep people down even by the very possessions they have. Quickly, he flashed a credit card and proudly told us that he had one and that was a major coup even though he had no intention of using it. The very fact that he, an African-American man with a college degree, could get a credit card was a major accomplishment to him. Some victory it would seem to most of us but he relished it.  He knew, too, that his degree set him apart, but he would also be aware that it was his skin color that always presented challenges.

The possession of credit and a credit card still sets many of us apart. TV ads hawk credit scores and how to either raise yours or find out how creditworthy you are. It's a symbol and a very precious one because it allows you entrance to homes, apartments, cars, health clubs, furniture, vacations--a cornucopia of goodies just for the bit of plastic in your pocket.

Use the card unwisely and you can create the illusion that you're someone or something you really aren't until the bill collectors begin hounding you. These illusions can be cushions against the cutting words that are often used to "keep'em in their place." Yes, there are a lot of people out there who want to keep you in your place and they know exactly where that place is, even if they won't say that to your face.

How do you gain access to this precious plastic wand of plenty? You know what the drill is. First, you have to answers a host of questions on lengthy applications or click on an Internet site that will access all your financial data in seconds and give you some form of credit. Yes, they do want you to buy and I wonder who is ever denied because credit makes the markets go round even if those who possess access will never be able to repay what they owe.

So, money and credit are things that seem to give us position and power in this society but words can take it all back even if your pockets are bulging with lucre. Think about it. If you're a man, when was the last time anyone ever referred to you as "boy?" I'll bet you that young professor knew how cutting that comment could be and exactly what it meant.

If you are a woman, do you really believe that being called a "girl" is a compliment? Does it really mean you're young, attractive and just fresh enough to be sexy and interesting? Or is it a single word that indicates your place in a corporation or any establishment? Girls are anonymous creatures who do someone else's bidding and they aren't given much thought other than that they can fetch coffee when it's wanted. Girls have little intellect and tolerate anything that's thrown at them. They know their place.

Another expression is "old lady."  This one is used, as you well know, disparagingly or contemptuously whenever a woman over 50 or even younger riles someone. It is supposed to hurt and it does and it's supposed to cut so deeply that the target will slink away quietly. Petty people or foolish kids love to use this one.

But old ladies may be back in style because as the nation steadily grays, so does the market they represent and when money comes in the door, words begin to bend to the pressure. I was reminded of this today as I saw that the wonderful actress Helen Mirren has become the face of L'Oreal Paris cosmetics.  There's still a place for the 15-year-old being made up to look legal, but, hopefully, they won't be hogging all the lifestyle and fashion ad jobs in the future.

Last night I saw a feature on Carmen Dell'Orefice, the 82-year-old model who had to return to work thanks to the machinations of Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme that cost her the entire nest egg she'd saved from years of modeling. Okay, Bernie, you may have worked a small wonder here. These old ladies are anything but tired and subservient. They're earning real money. I don't know if the bar has finally been lifted but maybe it's been budged a bit in the direction of equality.

I remember when a good friend told me his mother-in-law, a retired school teacher from Pennsylvania, had landed a job as a model. Model? She was in her 80s. Yes, she was discovered (believe it or not) in a small New York City shop where she went to inquire about a part-time job.

The saleswoman had a photographer friend and she arranged for them to meet. The rest is history. She got 90% of the ads for "little, old ladies" because her competition had died or wasn't up to the rigors of a shoot. I saw her on billboards on highways and in TV ads for a national bank. She even got lines to say, but hated looping. When they told her the pay for looping, her tone changed to a decidedly more agreeable one. She's gone now, but there are still retired women ready and willing for the work and I hope they find it.

The professor didn't tackle these words, but he did talk about how we depersonalize people in order to make it acceptable to deride them or their culture. Look at any war experiences and listen for the words used for the "enemy." It's an education. Think about the film "American Sniper" and how they refer to the enemy combatants.

In WWI they had the "words," WWII, Vietnam and now in the Middle East there are words used for the other side and they are intended to be offensive. But those words also come back home when the wars are over and they become a part of the American vernacular. Here they do the work of a different war of sorts, one that also is intended to keep someone down and in their place.

Do you use any of these words? Next time think about it. One may be aimed at you someday.