Is it Really All Black and White?

I dislike the word “all”.   It’s a demanding, self-important word, even though it’s quite small.  Are we all here?   Are all roofing contractors crooks?  Did you finish all your vegetables?   It is, if you will, the Napoleon of words, perhaps just because it is so small.   It’s the person at the party who insists on topping your joke with his own punchline.   It’s the blind date who decides to tell you the ways you resemble his ex-wife.   Or worse yet, his mother.    All the ways you resemble his mother.

In the name of full disclosure, I confess that I am guilty of using the a-word  more often than I should, albeit invariably with regret.   I use it when I’m arguing with my husband:  “Why do you always dump all the junk mail on me every day?”   (He does.)  Or when I’m trying to get my kids to do their homework:  “You can’t leave all your assignments till the last minute – you’re going to tackle them right now.”  (They haven’t.)   There’s no room to negotiate with the a-word, so it cuts off discussion, and that’s never a good thing.   In that way, it’s related to the equally unlovable word “every”.    As in “”You’ve left a pile of dirty clothes and schoolbooks in every room in the house.”   “Every time we visit my family you get into an argument with someone.”   And of course, “Why do you always dump all the junk mail on me every day?”

Occasionally I say things like this at work, but generally it’s either a mistake or a joke.  At work I’m more careful.  I’m more sensitive to the nuances of language, to the harm that words can inflict, to the subtle message of judgment that binary words like “all”, “every”, “always”, “never” convey.   I’m more respectful of other people’s feelings.   So why am I so sloppy at home?   Certainly I have more respect for my family’s feelings than I do for mere co-workers, but with family I have the luxury of letting my guard down because we’re in it for the long haul.   Note, however, that my husband hates it, doesn’t think it’s a good way to interact, and feels the lack of respect is clear, even when I think I’m just relaxing and being careless.   In other words, even with family it’s not right.

Turns out, it’s not ever right.

  • Not with blacks
  • Not with whites, Asians, Jews, women, Muslims, the handicapped
  • Not with police, roofing contractors or Republicans
  • Maybe with rapists, but I’m sure even some of them are falsely accused
  • You could give me a good argument about roofing contractors

In fact, I wonder why we think it’s okay to lump people into any kind of category.  I understand that the brain likes to make patterns, but if we can guard ourselves when we need to (with our coworkers, with our mother-in-law) then why don’t we do it all the time?   Why is it acceptable to disrespect people from other groups?   I think the answer lies in the question – it’s a lack of respect.   We say “I respect some men, but as a general rule, they’re all …”

Stop right there -that’s the very heart of the problem.   If the second half of the sentence has an “all” in it, then the first half of the sentence is simply not true.   My goal is to cut all those black and white words out of my vocabulary, although I really wish my husband would stop dumping all the junk mail on me every day.

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