Tuesday, August 21, 2012

PC Speech

Someone mentioned that using the term "Moslem" instead of "Muslim" tends to correspond to less enlightened and more bigoted attitudes toward Muslims. I don't doubt that it generally does, because language usage and beliefs generally tend to be group phenomena. On the other hand, I may sometimes write "Moslem" because I've read a lot of books written in the mid-20th century and earlier, and the current preferred usage has slipped my mind. I apologize if I've caused offense in this way.

When I notice that the preferred name for a group has changed, I tend to change my usage. A more complete description of my situation is: I change my usage, and I resent it. I'm with most progressives on almost every issue, but I hate PC language rules. When this topic comes up I often mention Bob Fosse's movie Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. I love that movie. In one scene, Bruce starts off a stand-up routine with a little speech containing every insulting term for ethnic groups you could think of, including an insulting term for his own ethnic group. He makes the point that they're just words, and that they hurt more when we taboo them, not less.

There's a musical from the 1970's called Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. It makes a similar point when a father remembers when he was a boy decades earlier, and he insisted on being call a negro. On the playground a white kid called him black and he hit the white boy in the eye. Then his son talks about how today, in the 1970's, he insists on being called black, and on the playground a white boy called him a negro, and he hit the white boy in the eye.

One more example of the silliness, that's right, I said silliness, of PC language rules: at the end of the 1980's you could infuriate a lot of feminists by referring to any full-grown human female as a "girl" and not a "woman." I knew one of those feminists, who happened to be a huge Sinead O'Conner fan, and in 1990 I infuriated her in that way several times without wishing to cause any offense. Her response was so angry that I changed my usage. Two years later, not only was grrrrl feminism everywhere, but Sinead O'Conner herself released an album entitled Am I Not Your Girl?

Back in 1990, after the last time I had forgotten and called my friend a girl and she became infuriated again, I apologized again and promised, again, to try to remember not to do it again, and then I asked her whether I had ever treated her disrespectfully, or as if I thought she was not an adult. She said no. I wonder if she got my point. I wonder if she thought about that conversation in 1992 when she learned the title of Sinead's next album.

Sticks and stones will break your bones, and words will hurt about as much as you allow them to.

No comments:

Post a Comment