Words are funny things: they have multiple uses, fluxes in nuances and many emotional flavors depending on the user. We often ignore these flavors for the convenience of conversation where we pretend that words have stable meanings and others are tasting the same thing we are when they use the words. Yet the truth is that the “meaning” of a word can vary from user to user depending on the unconscious flavors acquired by our different emotional experiences. Without understanding this aspect of language, we can often talk past each other. This post describes this weekend’s flavoring of the words “Cops” and “God” in my mind.
Brought up in a very safe, boringly homogenous, middle-class neighborhood in America, I was taught that police are our friends. My Boy Scouting re-enforced this. Then came the Vietnam war where I became a conscientious objector. Friends were hurt in the war protests. At Kent State, near my home, cops shot innocent college students. I started to hate and distrust “pigs” like many folks my age.
During my year-long hitchhike to India, I ran into police in many countries and feared them. I had friends arrested. I was arrested in Afghanistan but got out of jail due to very good fortune. Corruption was rampant in many of these countries where police often had unchecked power. The words “cop” and “police” became spiced with very nasty flavors.
Years later, again in Pakistan, a local university professor friend was hospitalized after being beaten. I visited him at the hospital and naively asked, “Did you report this to the police?” He replied, “The police? The police did this!” Apparently he had been called in by the police for “questioning” due to his Marxist writings.
Traveling again years later I met a woman traveler who had been raped by local police. She did not report the abuse — she was just happy to leave that country alive.
Then came Japan where I met police who don’t carry weapons, who have little service offices in each community and who are treated with much respect. My opinion and flavoring of the word “police” improved.
Later, I would work in Emergency and Trauma medicine for 20 years where I bonded with police offers who would come in to the ER with injuries to themselves or the criminal they had to fight to restrain. Cops became my friends – I understood their word and sympathized.
A few weeks ago, my son and I watch some horrendous videos on police abuse of blacks in simple traffic violation pull-overs. And again I watch the pungent spices coat my word “cop”.
Then this last weekend, while couch surfing, my daughter and I stayed with a young husband and wife. She was black Haitian and he was white, working-class Irish living in an Irish community in Bronx. After arriving, I was surprised to also find out the he was a New York police officer. He rode his bike to work, spoke fluent Spanish (self-taught and getting a masters in Hispanic literature).
With this fun exposure and great experiences with police officers in NYC who helped my daughter and me several times during our trip, I again watched how my mind flavored the word “cop” or “police”.
Our experiences flavor our words and concepts — there is no escaping our personal subjectivity. There is no universal meaning of a word — all words are used with unique flavorings. “God”, for example, is also differently by different people — and these vary at different times of their lives. I’ve seen the changing flavors of “God” occur in my mind from my theist days to my atheist days. The worse shift was when I saw people trying to tell my little children they are going to hell for not believing in “God”. “God” was then a horribly, rancid word.
During our couch surfing this weekend, our hosts shared their very different religious experiences. The Haitian wife was raise by a very superstitious mother who jumped from Catholicism to Seventh Day Adventist after her divorce. Our hostess loved her mother but did not “buy into any of that religious crap.” Even though she would have nothing to do with her mother’s Seventh Day Adventist circle, the wife was very supportive of her husband’s faith. Her husband, the cop, re-embraced his childhood Irish Catholicism during his father’s slow death about 8 years prior. Her husband explained, “I don’t really believe a lot of the Catholicism but I find it very comforting and helps me get through my work day.” He works in a very rough part of the Bronx. His wife would occasionally join him at Mass though she did not participate — she said, it makes him feel good. And he said he is thankful for her support even if she doesn’t believe.
During our couchsurfing adventure, I watched my mind yet again re-flavor the words “cops” and “God”. Whether the words describe fictional or real people, concrete or abstract ideas, it is fun to watch the mind spicing all these words. To me, this illustrates how illusory our feelings of ‘control’ and ‘self’ actually are.
Question to readers: Please share a story where you have watched your mind weighting a word differently over time.