On dichotomizing the world

Or, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!”

Spanish has two verbs which are translated into English as “is”: estar and ser. These verbs are, importantly, not synonyms in Spanish. Generally speaking, estar is used to refer to temporary conditions and ser to intrinsic qualities:

  • Estar: La manzana está verde. The apple is green, i.e., not ripe.
  • Ser: La manzana es verde. The apple is of a green color, e.g., a Granny Smith.

This occurred to me when I was thinking about the use of nouns to describe people rather than adjectives to describe their actions. I’ve linked to this excellent video in the past, and if you haven’t seen it, please give it a watch.

The message can be extended so far beyond the topic of “racist.” I’ve recently been seeing people use “bully” as a label for people rather than actions in the same basic way. “Liar” has long been treated the same way.

When we use a noun to call somebody something, such as “you’re a racist” or “you’re a bully” or “you’re a liar,” the effect tends to be similar to using ser in Spanish: We’re discussing an intrinsic quality, and we’re implicitly contrasting the “bad” people with the victims, the “good” people who are haplessly prejudiced against, bullied, and lied to.

When we use an adjective or clarify that we’re talking about acts, such as “that was a racist thing to say” or “I feel like I’m being bullied” or “that’s a lie,” the effect tends to be similar to using estar: These are not intrinsic identities that we’re assigning to people, these are temporary states.

As House is wont to say, “Everybody lies.” Does that make everybody a liar? Perhaps, but that’s not the point. The point is that we want behavior to stop, not identities. (Hopefully, if the harmful behaviors stop, the underlying thought patterns will be replaced, but that’s a bonus, not necessarily “the goal.”)

For me, the concern with confusing acts with identities isn’t just in how we see the “bad” people, but in how we see the “good” people: Joe can’t be racist because he’s a victim of racists. Jill can’t be a bully because she’s a victim of bullies.

When we talk about acts, we allow ourselves to slip away from the need to put people into such buckets. People can be both the victims of bullying and the perpetrators of it, both the victims of lies and the perpetrators, and so on.

As the video points out, when we’re robbed from, we don’t really care if the person was a lifelong criminal or if it was their first illegal act, we care first and foremost that we had something taken and we want it back. It’s not about “what you are,” it’s about “what you did.” And it’s vitally important to keep that forefront in our minds.

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