OPINION: Words Matter

by Gail Nomura

Words matter. Words can incite hate. Words can inspire acts of kindness and humanity. Words can accuse and blame. Words can support. Words can misinform. Words can inform. We should choose our words with care and think of the ramifications and baggage of the words we speak. We need to educate ourselves and don’t repeat and perpetuate historical wrongs by our words.  

A case in point is the ill-chosen words that Surgeon General Jerome Adams spoke in a televised interview on April 5, 2020 characterizing the sad and tragic week to come as “our Pearl Harbor moment” and “our 9/11 moment” in reference to the COVID-19 coronavirus- related deaths to peak that week. Soon all forms of news media were incessantly repeating the term Pearl Harbor in association with the coronavirus pandemic, almost equating the two as identical. The Surgeon General was right to warn of the COVID-19 deaths to come and the need to continue to follow stay-at-home orders. But it was inappropriate to compare the fight to contain the novel coronavirus to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. 

Pearl Harbor and 9/11 have little in common with a global virus pandemic affecting all of humanity. Rather, a “Pearl Harbor moment” conjures up not only a war abroad but also government policies at home that led to a mass violation of civil liberties by the forcible round-up, removal, and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans based solely on racial ancestry without regard to U.S. citizenship and due process. A “9/11 moment” conjures up not only the tragic loss of lives in the World Trade Center but domestic attacks against Muslim Americans, Sikhs, and others as some Americans mistakenly sought to find tangible domestic targets in a misplaced attempt to retaliate against “terrorists.” 

A “Pearl Harbor moment” and a “9/11 moment” resulted in an US and THEM mentality. But in this time of global coronavirus pandemic there is NO us and them. As the Surgeon General said with well-chosen words in another interview that week, “we’re all in this together.” A unifying choice of words. We need to remember we must come together as a world community to fight this virus. One world community.

We all share this same journey. When we get to the end of this particular journey together, will we remember our humanity in our collective choice of words? Words matter.

Gail Nomura is UW Associate Professor Emerita; Adjunct Associate Professor: History, and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She received her PhD from the University of Hawai’i Manoa and taught at the University of Michigan and Washington State University before coming to the UW. She grew up in ‘Aiea where she could see Pearl Harbor from her home.

Featured image: Nik Anderson (licensed under a creative commons agreement)