Sticks and stones… but words are really heavy


Like most people*, I listen to the Moral Maze, the most infuriating of all podcasts. I rarely get angry, but each and every episode makes me want to smash my phone into smithereens and sob softly into my pillow. This is why I love it.

Last week’s episode was particularly explosive – Religious orthodoxy versus liberal values. I know, right.

One word came up a few times, clumsily thrown around by Giles Fraser (clumsily is obviously my opinion, and I will try to illustrate why I felt this way). It was a big word. That word was antisemitism.

All words are more than words, but some words are more than others. Some words carry the weight of history on their backs, the pain of millions. Genocide. Racism. Antisemitism. Islamophobia. Fundamentalist. Nigger. These words are huge, heavy, burdensome. They paint powerful pictures and evoke deep emotional responses. When we use these words, we are not just making a factual statement, we are also conjuring up vivid images of suffering.

Let’s get back to the Moral Maze and Mr Fraser. My understanding of his core argument on the podcast was: Circumcision is a fundamental facet of the Jewish faith, therefore if you believe that circumcision is wrong then you are an antisemite.

This is a powerful accusation to make.

It might be technically correct (assuming that Mr Fraser’s assertion is taken for granted). If circumcision really is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith and you are against it then you are effectively saying that Judaism is wrong. However, given the history of the word, given the history of persecution of Jews throughout history, it was not the right word for Mr Fraser to use in my humble opinion. It was not the right word because it shut down any reasoned discussion and it turned a fact-based conversation into a highly emotive one.

I think I found it frustrating because it took the show in a direction that the world seems to be going in, where we have little ability to have frank and reasonable discussions with people who believe things different from us. We have little ability to hear things that we might disagree with and that might be a question of the very foundation of who we are. We end up in shouting matches and name-calling instead.

All words are more than words, but some words are more than others. Some words carry the weight of history on their backs. Let me be careful in how I use and how I hear these words from here on in.

* This is a joke.

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