In Brief—Lionel Burt reached the end station on life’s trip this week. As he would have put it, words have meaning. These are the words I wrote eighteen months ago. Somehow, this piece was never published. Not a word has been changed. They are as applicable today as the day they were written. Lionel was right: words have meaning.
An Iconoclast Shall Lead Them—
Sitting on a big rock on the side of a mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Lionel pondered the subject at considerable length. An autodidact without academic credentials on the wall or a tassel hanging from the closet door, he’s as close to being a true polymath as anyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s an expert skier, ski coach, golf pro, tennis whiz, inventor, professional comedy writer, speaker and friend of many years.
One of the subjects to which he has given considerable thought is the use and misuse of words, how the misuse of words has led to misunderstanding, persecution, death and war. Out of his ponderings has grown Quality Talk, a method that seeks to get humans to communicate on important issues using words that are agreed to by all the participants.
Probably the best example he gives of his belief is the concept of “Jewishness.” Is it a religion or is it something more? Is it a cultural artifact? Is it a physical thing that identifies the person exclusive of the religious belief? At least as important because it challenges deeply-held beliefs, is Lionel anti-Semitic for raising the question?
Old friends have been lost because they misunderstood the message, but non-religious people who have previously identified themselves as “Jewish” leave the lecture room in wonderment at their false assumptions. Have they deluded themselves or have they been taken in by a smooth talker?
By now it’s an accepted fact that all humans originated in Africa and that our wanderings to the far corners of the earth have led to our evolving different characteristics with differing belief systems. Some belief systems are wholly different from the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that developed in the Middle East. One of those groups adapted the older religions and adopted the religion called Judaism.
Despite the myth that the adherents of Judaism (Jews) were expelled from the region where their religion was born, some adherents of that religion voluntarily moved on to other areas of the planet and mixed with the local inhabitants, but the religious belief system lived on because, among other reasons, the religion provided a sense of solidarity in a culture with different religions. Gradually, human nature led to ostracism and persecution of the adherents to Judaism. The important element here, though, is that the Jews mixed their genes with those of the local inhabitants. Put more plainly, the Jews eventually took on the physical appearance of their neighbors. Only the religion remained essentially the same.
So are the Jews adherents of Judaism or are they somehow transmuted into physical beings that can be identified as “Jewish” separate and apart from their religious belief? What are those once Jewish humans who adopted different religious beliefs or who have abandoned religion altogether? Lionel maintains that they are simply humans that are either religious Jews or they are not. For this, some mistakenly call him anti-Semitic.
It’s one thing to admire a religion and even identify with its values, but it’s something entirely different to be a human who has stepped away from a particular belief system. This is what Quality Talk is about: using the right words to reach an agreement that all the participants can accept, whether political or religious. Lionel is advocating using the right word and the subject of “Jewishness” is the vehicle.
Then realty intrudes. I see Lionel’s mission as admirable, but for two reasons I see it as nearly impossible to achieve: 1) the widespread belief that “Jew” is a physical identification separate and apart from a religious identification and, 2) the natural inclination of all humans to use imprecise words to get an advantage on an opponent. I have told him that he is tilting at the windmills much as Don Quixote saw windmills as dragons. Humans are wedded to the ways that things have been done for millennia, and just because there is a better way doesn’t mean that they will embrace it. That is human nature.
At the same time, I believe the world needs someone like Lionel to tilt at their windmills, to raise their consciousness. Maybe Lionel’s mission is to open up closed minds. Changing even one mind can be worth the effort. Lionel is right, words do matter. The world clearly needs to have destructive dragons slain. Quality Talk may be a constructive way to go.