Monday, November 10, 2014

Words and Their Meaning


1. pertaining to a woman or girl: feminine beauty; feminine dress.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.

1. pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men: masculine attire.
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, as strength and boldness.

What is gender? I've always identified as a male personality. Being subtle or kind or soft have eluded me. Being blunt and making comments that are to the point (and sometimes hurtful) came easily. Based on I am masculine.

Meriam Webster says:

1. female.
2. characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women <feminine beauty> <a feminine perspective>
3.  of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to females <a feminine noun>

1. a: male, b: having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man.
2. of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to males <masculine nouns>

Meriam Webster will not go as far as giving us nouns such as ‘sensitivity’ or ‘boldness’ in their definition. We get to pick our own nouns. They say, “Hey, we don’t make the rules”. You do. Smart cookie.

Nomenclature and value systems. Words and their meanings. I have been interested in how these two things sometimes have a hard time matching their insides with their outsides.

This semester, I walked into class on the first day of school and met all of my new students. Half of them were men and half of them were women. I asked them, “How many of you believe that men and women should be paid the same amount of money for the same work?” All of them raised their hands. I asked them, “How many of you believe that women and men should have the same access to opportunities and privileges?” They all raised their hands. I asked them, “How many of you believe that even though we are different in our gender identity, we are all human beings doing our best to live this life we have?” They all raised their hands. Then I told them, based on the basic definition, this made all of them feminists. They looked shocked. I asked how many of them identified as a feminist. About three people raised their hands.

We went on to talk about how nomenclature and value systems are sometimes misaligned. That words in them selves have legacy burdens, and have painful and joyful histories. I then asked each of the students to choose words that they think have been misunderstood and create a process of reclaiming them. The students chose words like wealth, security, Islam, and dreamer versus realist.

We create words and nomenclature to have clarity. But sometimes, we need to make amends when things go awry. I have been thinking about words that mean well but have become contentious in their history. Or contentious in their black and white paradigm. Words like racism. Words like patriarchy. Words that pit one group of people against another and push one group against the wall. The circle of victimhood keeps going around in circles. I think this is called triangulation. What is triangulation?

Triangulation goes something like this. A student comes to me and complains about teacher A. The student says that the teacher is too hard on them. (Student=victim, teacher A=perpetrator, Yoon Soo=nothing so far in the dynamic.) There are two roads in front of me at this point. One is that of listener. But if I take this information and go to teacher A and accuse them of being too hard on our student, I take on the role of savior, and the game of triangulation begins. And this session will not end until all three people have played all three roles of victim, perpetrator, and savior. Shall we see how this plays out?

So in taking on the role of savior, I go to teacher A and accuse them of being a bad teacher. In that moment, I become the perpetrator, teacher A becomes the victim, and here come the student to rescue teacher A. The student asks why I had to go and tell this story to teacher A, and says that they were just blowing off some steam, and yells at me for disclosing this information. The student becomes the perpetrator, I become the victim, and teacher A comes to the rescue and tells the student that Yoon Soo is just doing her best, that she really cares for all of her students, and this was an instance of good intentions gone bad.

All three participants have played all three roles and the game has ended. Some of these triangulation sessions go on for days, or years at a time. Multiple sessions can be going on in unison. So the next time you want to rescue someone, all you have to do is decide if you want to start a cycle of triangulation or not.

Who benefits from all of us running around in circles of blame, victimhood and saving people? Are we the masses going around and around in purgatory—all the while there is a door that we can exit out of? And what is this door called?

Homer Simpson once said, “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand.” I had once thought that understanding was the key to compassion and empathy. But Homer’s comment points out apathy. And as much as abuse can be hurtful, apathy is more deadly.

How is apathy, compassion, empathy and rescuing someone similar and different? The core difference is on how much dialogue is happening. And making assumptions about what “help” looks like. We frequently misunderstand “action” as helping. When in many cases “listening and acknowledging” can go very far. Listening puts the emphasis on the other person and what they are saying. Giving advice puts the emphasis on myself, my knowledge and my limitations, biases and preferences. I once heard that when advice is given when it is not asked for, it is called meddling. And then there are life choices that we just cannot give advice to, even if it is asked for, because it is not our place to make such decisions.

So what do we do. I think this might be a good time to think about privilege. What do I have that others do not? Most of my life I was so busy feeling sorry for myself because I thought I was stupid, lazy, fat and ugly, I did not notice that I was smart, diligent, and pretty. And in doing so, I reveled in my victimhood of being the underdog and being mad at the people who “had it all". But it turns out even if I was the underdog a while ago, I am no longer the underdog. I have the privilege of having a tenured position, at a university in the United States. I have the privilege of having a good brain. I have the privilege of having a well-rounded life experience. I have the privilege of having a family, friends, and a core group of people whom I adore and who adore me.

I think this might be our door out. If people in a place of privilege, if the people who are in the have, if the people who are in a place of power, step away, and in spite of the fact that it may not look like a good idea to do so, if these people of privilege choose to care, and choose to understand, than I think the world can change.

Most of my life I thought compassion and empathy was a sign of weakness. I did not know what strengths of the mind, spirit, and heart it took to have compassion and empathy. I never knew that compassion and empathy doesn’t count the beans in a race against who did what and how many times. Compassion and empathy sits down with you, and comforts you, doesn’t want to change you, but accepts and acknowledges the pain you are going through and have been through. Compassion and empathy is being witness to your humanness. Without judgment. I think this is our way out.


  1. I really like the threads that you are forming about a way out of traps of triangulation and a disconnect between language's actual meaning and it's perceived meaning. I find this is stronger around words that are seen as intellectual or philosophical. In some ways you are getting at connotation and denotation of a word. I also think of models of the message cycle and how even when we intend to communicate with perfect we find "noise." Thanks to your post I see part of that process is actually our humanity and should be celebrated.

    A way out is a beautiful image. Is that part of your further study?

    1. Ah, beauty. I'm messes up about that word too! I'm writing a bit about that and will share when I'm ready!