The Tyranny of “should”

It’s amazing to me how much meaning, import, weight, significance and worth can be bound up in a single word. What’s more, it’s at least doubly deep because all that meaning and worth has at least equal proportions of negative import and anti-meaning and measures of antithetical worth. And when all that density and mass of meaning is contrasted with the brevity and ordinariness of a small word, the impact of this recognition can be devastating.

Words like “family” and “love” and “happiness” can have this heaviness and can even be wielded as weapons. But for the most part, at least in my experience, the majority of the unnatural weight of these words comes from within the person who feels that weight as it is applied to them. Internal criticism and insecurity can lend this extraordinary significance to simple words.

But it’s the words with in-built judgement that have the greatest density and gravity and danger. Words like “normal” and “too” and “must” and “enough” and “should”. The culture and society in which any of these words are used have a lot to do with how sharp and powerful their density is. It is true that these words can be just a susceptible to the voice of individual insecurity. But these words, by passing society’s sentence over the object of these words, take on a monstrous degree of weight and power disproportionate to their size and ordinary linguistic importance.

Speaking from my own experience, “should” is the worst offender. Though it is a lowly auxiliary word, a verb form used to modify a main or dominant verb, it has no independent purpose, is always beholden to the main action word to have meaning and value. But cultural and social context synergizes it with secondary meaning and characteristics, magnifying its power. And when that magnified weight is used in anger or other ill intent, it becomes a destructive force that even brutally blunt adjectives can only inadequately describe.

“You should not be…”, “You should just…”, “You should have…”, “You should [do/think/believe/feel]…”, and countless other predicate phrases can be annoying, even rage-inducing when used to impose the speaker’s will on the recipient without regard to the recipient’s agency. Person to person, this can be anything from a mildly negative to a truly horrific experience. But these imperatives become tyrannical when wielded by a system of power to oppress marginalized people under the crushing weight of their unreasonable expectations.

Some examples, all taken from conversations I’ve either witnessed or been a part of in the last few weeks, may help clarify what I’m going on about:

  • “Women should look like women. They should make an effort to look good, feminine.”
  • “People should be required to take better care of themselves, be healthier, lose weight and exercise. Fat people put a greater strain on social systems and should be made to do something about it.”
  • “You should stop worrying about what other people think. You shouldn’t let anyone else tell you how to feel.”
  • “People with money shouldn’t get to whine and play the stress or anxiety card. They should be happy with what they’ve got. What could they have to be depressed about?”
  • “You should be happier, smile more.”
  • “You shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping and shouldn’t be sad. You have a lot to be thankful for, more than most people do.”
  • “You should just shrug it off, let it go. You shouldn’t care so much.”

See what I mean? Even though these dictates were imposed in private conversations, they also appear in the world at large as part of a number of systemic power structures. These same sentiments form the basis of expectations underlying some of the most erosive, caustic social constructs, from misogyny and patriarchy to racism and xenophobia.

When “should” becomes the driver, the metric, and the adjudicator, the power dynamic of that word no longer reflects a reality of free will. Instead, conformity and rebellion alike become matters of safety and survival, not mere choice. And when a person can’t live up to the “should”, the guilt, shame and disappointment are not just overly-dramatic emotional responses, but are catalytic forces with unpredictable potency.

I don’t know where I am going with this post. I have no orderly resolution or inspirational message to impart. It’s just been weighing on my mind and heart and I wanted to put it out in the ether in hopes of feeling some relief from the sharing.

3 comments so far

  1. Widdershins on

    The word on which just about every aspect of our society runs. These days whenever anyone uses it around me, I just raise an eyebrow, and if they aren’t familiar with the consequences of ignoring said eyebrow, I politely but firmly elaborate. 🙂

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      Eyebrows can be devastating. Woe betide those who ignore the power of an elevated brow. 😉😎


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