I originally wrote this for my newsletter, which will come out tomorrow as it always does. But I think it's worth repeating here as well (in a slightly longer form).
Words have power. Not "abracadabra" sort of power, but the power to turn concepts into a tangible force and to bend others' perceptions toward your own perception. We are often sloppy with language. We don't choose our words carefully, and that usage colors our message. How many times have you gotten into an argument with someone, only for them to say "Well, that wasn't what I meant to say"? The fact is you did say it, and others heard it, and images and opinions were formed.
The point of language was underlined this week with the Colorado shooting, which was originally described by many as the Batman massacre. I understand it wasn't done out of malice. That was the movie playing, and the opening of the movie was a huge deal. It was the name that most immediately came to mind, and so we used it. Everyone was using it.
But the story of the shooting shouldn't be about the movie. It should be about the shooting. I know if I lost a loved one in that shooting, I wouldn't want to have to invoke the name of a comic book hero to explain the circumstances. And I certainly wouldn't want the ludicrous image of Batman massacring my loved ones to even enter into someone's head, which is what "the Batman massacre" did invoke in some people.
Images are important. Focus is important. Words are powerful, and people need to respect that power. The Batman massacre was a terrible term, born out of shock and surprise, grabbing the first terms that came to mind. But they were not good words for the circumstances.
The media figured this out too. By the next day it was being referred to as the Colorado theater massacre, and I imagine (and hope) that will probably be the name this event keeps.
Does that make what happened less horrible? Of course not. But it takes focus away from a very trivial detail - the movie playing - and, thus, returns attention to the more important details. We name these events by location: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Dunblane (in Scotland, which happened when I was there in the mid 1990s, and I'm saddened more Americans aren't aware of it). Locations are neutral, a quick way of indicating the specific event without bringing additional color to the topic. I really don't care what movie was playing. I want to know what happened. I don't want to be thinking about Batman when I'm trying to understand what happened to these people.
Words matter. The choice of words is not trivial.