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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Adopt a Child or a Road--You Pick

There are many things out there to adopt. A quick google search of "adopt a" reveals programs to adopt a pet, minefield, platoon, manatee, classroom, greyhound, chick, and...somewhat more mysterious in how you go about the adoption process...a demon. And this is just on the first page.

It isn't until the last entry on page 2 that you actually get to adopting a child. You first need to read about adopting a native elder, highway, and even a "useless blob." Sure makes the children of this world feel special.

The brilliant and lovely Jane at Plain Jane Mom has a fantastic post about this issue on her blog. How does one explain to their child the intense love created through adoption when one can also adopt "a filthy highway or a zoo animal?"

Adoption has replaced the idea of sponsorship in our language. Usually, when one "adopts" a road or minefield, they are agreeing to either throw money at the situation or spend a few hours a week cleaning up a mess. And while I love pets as much as the next person, there is something profoundly strange about using the same word to describe the process of bringing home a dog from a shelter vs. a human from an orphanage. Perhaps it is this twist in linguistics that makes people believe that you can always "just adopt."

Jane's post about the misuse of the word "adoption" goes hand-in-hand with the move towards positive adoption language and the idea that the words we use reveal our thoughts on the subject at hand. Phrases such as real mother, own child, or abandon say more about the thoughts of the speaker than they do about the situation. Are people who are cavalierly tossing around the word adoption simply not aware of the larger implications this has for adoptive parents and adopted children? Are people who ask "is she your own child?" not aware of how this makes the child and the parent feel?

So this is what it comes down to in the end: can anyone truly be verbally sensitive to every group or person out there? Do we only become sensitive on the subjects that affect us emotionally? In the comments section, other readers pointed out their own linguistic pet peeves including the term "starving" (thanks, Melanie). How does speaking in hyperbole about your hunger affect those suffering from true starvation?

It's a question I ask because I try to be sensitive but often wonder if by default, I (like everyone else) fall flat. And you know I always like a good reason to beat myself up. I'm realistic that no one is perfect, but are even people who attempt to be sensitive and thoughtful from point one really no more successful than people who give no thought to their words? Jane's post opened my eyes and made me see those adopt-a-highway signs in an entirely new light--one which I hadn't considered when I read her post even though adoption is in the forefront of my mind. Is it humanly possible to reduce the amount of time you offend? Can one person's affront be another person's kindness--and how do you speak neutrally without going insane?

It's a fair question because part of my book is about what not to say. It's more difficult to discuss what will be helpful for everyone. But there has been some general consensus as to what is hurtful and unhelpful. And if it's truly not possible to speak sensitively in the broadest sense of the word, then why should I ever be upset with someone when they say something that hurts me? I'm basing this book on the idea that people want to learn. They want to get along with other people and they don't want to offend. So, obviously, I would like the answer to this question to be, "yes, Melissa, we can become sensitive if people give us the right guidance."

Does it just come down this: there is obviously a difference between those who use words without knowing and those who use words after being elucidated in terms of the offensiveness factor. If this is true, if I used the word adopt in terms of a highway yesterday, is it understandable? But is it only now offensive if I keep using this word every time I write to Jane knowing how she feels about the subject? And then where do we draw the line--are there things that are offensive before the educating begins? Or do we forgive all words that come before a person has been told otherwise?

Being a human is difficult. Being a communicating human is even harder.

Hardest still is wrapping your mind around the line between giving people a break and feeling offended.


Anonymous said...

Oh darn - I wrote this whole comment and blogger ate it. So I will try again...

It is an interesting question, one that I'm sure linguists would have a field day with. But I think it has happened since the beginning of time - a word loses its meaning over time because it is used inappropriately, until it becomes so lost that you have to find another word to express that original meaning. So maybe we will have to find another word to describe that special bond of adoption, since others have co-opted our current word.

To your question of whether we should forgive all the words that come before a person has been told otherwise? I don't think so, not completely anyway.

Ignorance of the law is not a defense - if you commit a crime doing something that you didn't know was illegal. I think this is similar. You don't get off totally free just because you didn't know it was wrong.

That said however - we probably shoud allow some amount of leniency for first time offenders. A slap on the wrist. Community service maybe? Drive an infertile to her dr appointments for a month. :-)

Round is Funny said...

Nicely put.

I think when we invest ourselves so emotionally in a process - resolution of infertility, adoption, or anything else meaningful to us - it's hard to wrap our hands around how thoughtless others can be about it without meaning to.

But, while I don't think that going down one of these roads means we're obligated to ALWAYS be the one educating people about how their words might sound to us, I do think we can cut people a break sometimes when they don't mean to be or don't realize their words are offensive. So much of our empathy is gained through personal experience that I think we lose something when we're too busy being offended to share this experience.

Case in point - the process of adopting and writing about adoption has put me in touch with so many infertility bloggers, which have in turn tought me so much that I never would have known about supporting someone dealing with infertility.

Barely Sane said...

Interesting post. Despite now finding myself knee deep in the throws of adoption (a child, not a highway), I am still learning what is "acceptable" language. It's been interesting seeing my reaction to certain things and seeing the reaction of my friends and family. Some of them get it, some dont, but it's not my job to educate them about it any more than it was for me to try to explain the horror of infertility.
In the meantime, I have become increasingly sensitive to the things I say or do around others. I have become aware that words can be a painful weapon, even when not intended. And I have learned that not everyone sees things the same way I do. Even within adoption itself - domestic vs international, open vs closed and the list goes on and on. There is no way to be 110% politically correct in the world today.
Language changes and evolves to accomodate our environment. It's inevitable and out of our control but it doesn't mean we get to have a free-for-all.
There is a fine line between someone who speaks with malice and someone who is overly sensitive.... I just haven't figured out where it is yet but at least I'm aware it exists. That's got to count for something - right?

Anonymous said...

VERY well said.

I think you are right - that we become sensitive to the subjects that affect us emotionally. Frankly, I KNOW that I am sensitive about our infertility. And therefore I feel pain when someone says something like "just relax!" carelessly.

That said... I tend to be a person who gives people the benefit of the doubt when I know they just don't know that what they're saying is hurtful to me. I try and look beyond it and know that they have good intentions, they sometimes really think that something they say is helpful.

And I confess that I don't always take the time to educate them either - I pick my battles. Like round said - it isn't my responsibility to take on every ignorant person I meet.

But at the same time, if I'm not going to educate everyone, I don't feel I have the right to get pissed off that someone says something which rubs me as intolerant.

It's a fine line. I really like round's thought that we have gained so much empathy from our personal experience with infertility. It's so true.

Karaoke Diva said...

For me, it depends opn the person. If I know they are a crass and rude person, I am much more apt to feel offended by things they say. If they are a sincere and generally tactful person, I'm more apt to forgive a careless word here and there.