Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, will not let anyone in her office use the word “tragedy” or the phrase “tragic events.”

Her reasoning is really salient for this blog on the Language of Conflict. Why has Ambassador Power banned the word? She says that it suggests we have no agency over what happened.

We say, “Oh, what happened is so terrible. It’s a tragedy.” We release a sympathetic sigh, shake our head, and then continue munching our salad.

We believe we cannot do anything about tragedies…we are as powerless as Oedipus was not to kill his father and sleep with his mother…as powerless as Romeo & Juliet were to interrupt their fate. Oh the whole situation was “star crossed.”

If the event is described versus labelled we may be able to see more opportunities to influence — if not what happened — at least what happens next.

For example saying, “It’s such tragedy what’s happening in Syria” is quite different than saying “there are millions of displaced people unable to return home because there is a war in Syria that no one has gone in and interrupted.”

As you move about today and this week, pay attention to the use of the word tragedy…

How do you feel when you hear it?

Do you feel a safe distance away?

Who do you think may benefit from us using this word?

Who is protected from your engagement?

What is the cost?

I like Power’s position on the word. Tragedy’s belong on the stage and in novels.