How we think and what we say has the power to give life or take life. As a counselor, I spend all day helping people explore the connection between their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. This model of therapy is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is best explained in the image below:
It is important to note that everyone does this. This is the normal flow of thoughts -> emotions -> behavior. The problem occurs when the thought process is distorted. This can happen because of bias, lack of information, or the language we use to describe a situation or individual/group of people. When we do any of the above, we engage in distorted thinking and this leads to behaviors that are based on those distortions, increasing the likelihood we will harm ourselves or others. (see cognitive distortions)
When I think about marginalized or vulnerable youth, language matters. The language a society uses to refer to a person’s distinctiveness shapes that society’s beliefs and ideas about that person or group of people. Words are powerful; Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, mental health conditions, skin color, or sexual orientation, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with distinctives that are different than the “norm”.
Fag. Sissy. Spaz. Retard. Nigger. Bitch. Cripple. Slut.
Now, imagine this scenario…
Imagine you’re a gay teenager who has been struggling with substance abuse for a number of years. You have tried to stop many times but failed. You are likely to begin thinking of yourself as a failure as you heap on the shame and regret. You’ve done some pretty awful things to the people you love in the process of supporting your addiction and have also done some things you’re too ashamed to talk about, like selling your family’s stuff or sleeping with a drug dealer for drugs. You find the withdrawals are so overwhelming that you can’t just stop and you resort to doing whatever you need to do, no matter how bad the behavior, to avoid being sick again. You now stay high most days just to avoid being sick and because it gives you a break from the self-loathing. Two thoughts run through your head on a regular basis, “What the heck is wrong with me” and “I am a piece of crap because I continue doing ____”. When you have these thoughts, and they are now frequent, you use drugs, or other unhealthy behaviors, just to push them out of your mind because if you keep thinking about those thoughts you tell yourself you might as well kill yourself.
Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, impact our culture, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People first language puts the person before distinctives, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis or condition as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself as a child of God. (i.e., person with substance abuse difficulties, student who self injures, the individual that suffers from depression vs. addict, cutter, depressed.)
The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the basis for ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that language use significantly shapes perceptions of the world and forms ideological preconceptions.
Another consequence of using labeling language is that it paves the way for moral disengagement. Anytime an individual or a group of similar individuals are marginalized, moral disengagement has occurred. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process by which one clears away any mental obstacles to treat the individual or group poorly. As social beings, we cannot intentionally bring harm to one another without shutting off our empathy. Moral disengagement makes that happen. If you are going to “other” or “vilify” a group of people, for instance LGBTQ youth, you first have to change the way you see them. It would be nearly impossible to marginalize an entire group of beloved children of God but it is way easier to marginalize a group of fags, queers, and dykes.
A theology of the Imago Dei is one that placed our belovedness as a child of God, made in God’s very own image, before any other identifiers. It doesn’t mean we don’t have those distinctives that make us unique but it does take away the ability to separate people into value-based groups based on those distinctives.
So, what is your theological starting point? Is it Genesis 1 (original blessing/Imago Dei) or Genesis 3 (the fall of man/sin)? It really does matter. It shapes the story we tell ourselves about the youth we serve. Do we approach them through the lens of the Imago Dei, believing the truest thing about them is they are the embodied image of the living God? Or, do we immediately see them as broken and in need of fixing? What we believe will ultimately impact HOW we do ministry and how we think and talk about them, as well as the words we choose to use, shapes the narrative about God, the world, and their place in it.