Do you take offense easily? Are you wedded to being politically correct in everything you say and do? A few years ago I took a course on Buddhism at UVA. The first project our instructor asked us to do was to write down a list of words to describe ourselves. You can imagine when we gathered them together on the blackboard what that list looked like – lots of “mothers,” “fathers,” “friends,” and family ties and occupations galore. I probably added “writer,” and “wife” to the mix. The purpose if I recall correctly, was for us to banish all those words from our consciousness, words that separate us into different groups by clan or class or religion or education, and think in terms of a more universal, inclusive identity. We are all human, deal with it.
Now I’m not writing this just for Bob, who absolutely hates political correctness. He has since the term first appeared. I have to admit that what first attracted me to him was his iconoclastic nature, so even when I’m disagreeing with him about something, I understand his position, for the most part. So when I read this essay in The Spectator by Nick Cohen, I immediately forwarded it on to him. Can we really change the world simply by changing the words we use? I grew up when “mental retardation” was considered a birth defect, and calling someone “retarded” wasn’t cursing, it was just a fact. These children were not mainstreamed and so we knew very little about them. Then later we used words like “intellectual disability.”
Worry about whether you, or more pertinently anyone you wish to boss about, should say ‘person with special needs’ instead of ‘disabled’ or ‘challenged’ instead of ‘mentally handicapped’ and you will enjoy a righteous glow. You will not do anything, however, to provide health care and support to the mentally and physically handicapped, the old or the sick. Indeed, your insistence that you can change the world by changing language, and deal with racism or homophobia merely by not offending the feelings of interest groups, is likely to allow real racism and homophobia to flourish unchallenged, and the sick and disadvantaged to continue to suffer from polite neglect. An obsession with politeness for its own sake drives the modern woman, who deplores the working class habit of using ‘luv’ or ‘duck’, but ignores the oppression of women from ethnic minorities. A Victorian concern for form rather than substance motivates the modern man, who blushes if he says ‘coloured’ instead of ‘African-American’ but never gives a second’s thought to the hundreds of thousands of blacks needlessly incarcerated in the US prison system. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/nick-cohen/2014/04/you-sexistracistliberalelitist-bastard-how-dare-you/
Cohen believes the right and the left are equally responsible for pitting one group against another, and fighting pretend wars so that all that exists really is the argument. Think about that video of Obama saying something about the middle of the country, or was it PA, “…clinging to their religion and their guns.” Think about that leaked video of Romney at that $50,000 a plate dinner where he said it wasn’t his job to win the 47 percent of voters who were committed to President Obama, because they are “dependent on government” (and he will) “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” That pretty much deep-sixed his campaign. And I think it’s true. The media is always making it about us and them, except every now and then when a clear voice cuts through the rubble.
“As the late and much-missed Robert Hughes said, ‘We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism’.”
Words of course can hurt, and they can heal. We returned last night from Great Grandmother Ada’s Passover Seder. We read through a whole book of words in English and Hebrew before a dinner filled with symbolism and meaning. It’s meant to recall our journey from slavery to freedom, to cement our Jewish identity, and it happened right after some KKK nut job in Kansas yelled “Heil Hitler” after killing three people. He will be charged with a “hate crime.” But Jewish people everywhere know it was so much more than hate. We remembered the six million in our reading of the Haggadah. Until we can break down the mental barriers that divide us, by race or sex or religion – and not just with words but with real legislation and dialogue devoid of political semantics – what should we expect of our politicians.