Political correctness - Livre d'Or

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Political correctness
Thursday, 15 May 2008 at 08:49 pm

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In my feminism post, I flippantly said I wasn't interested in removing the syllable -man- from the English language. There was a bit of discussion in the comments, and it seems like a topic that lots of people have views about, so perhaps we could develop some ideas around this.

I think it's a given that it is morally worthwhile to pick polite words rather than rude words. No, seriously. Nobody who expects to be taken seriously uses openly racist terms in public, for example. But the question is how far to take this basic principle. This gets into philosophical questions of how far language influences reality, and also political questions about where the ideal balance is between avoiding offence and using language expressively. Actually, both those principles are pretty important to me. I strongly don't want to insult anyone by using an inappropriate term to describe them, but I also care very much about precise and meaningful communication.

We all agree that racism is bad

On one level, it's a matter of basic respect. Yes, it can sometimes seem as if the fashion for which terms to use changes with the wind, and the whole system can look very fraught and complicated, or in many cases silly. But the thing is, if you can't be bothered to find out how someone wants to be referred to, that essentially means that you can't be bothered to make even a small effort to avoid insulting and hurting them. Of course, you can innocently get it wrong, because yes, the correct word to use is going to depend in a detailed and unpredictable way on the preferences of an individual and the situation and so on. I think the appropriate response in that case is to apologize and switch to the preferred term. Insisting on continuing to use the offensive term once you know it's offensive is extremely rude. Of course, a lot of the time you're just talking about a group of people in the abstract, and you don't have a specific individual around to express a preference. I think it's morally right to make a reasonable effort to find what the generally accepted terms are in that sort of situation.

Having said that, I am wary of euphemisms. It seems to me that a statement like "It's a well established fact that African-Americans have lower IQs on average than Caucasians" is much more racist and dangerous than a statement like "See that black guy over there? He works with my mum." (For that specific example, I feel very weird about the term "African-American", because very few of the black people I know are either African or American. However, see the previous paragraph about respect; if someone prefers to be called African-American rather than black, it's rude and obnoxious for me to grumble about that preference.) To me, though, the formal sounding terms for ethnic groups actually promote the idea that "race" is a real and important characteristic, and allow people to say things that are actually really offensive while superficially coming across as rational and objective. I also really don't like the hodgepodge of skin colour terms with geographical terms, nor the implication that there's something insulting about mentioning the fact that someone is black.

It's more of a grey area when we get into terms that are not direct references to ethnic groups, but are metaphors and figures of speech which may or may not have insulting connotations. It's not helped because there are loads of urban myths around such terms; no, niggardly is nothing to do with thinking that black people are mean. (Though if a particular person felt offended at this term, I would probably avoid it in their presence, even though they're wrong on etymological grounds.) At the opposite end of the range, a thoughtful person probably should look for an alternative simile to replace working like a black. There are lots of examples in between; is it racist to use fair for beautiful, for example?

What about gender?

When it comes to sexist language, there seems to be much less broad agreement than with racism (though as I've outlined, there's still a range of views about that topic). Even actively insulting terms for women (bitch, cunt, pussy, etc) are arguably acceptable in some circumstances. Though I think that someone who referred to women in general as "bitches" would probably face as much social opprobrium as an open racist. I am not absolutely convinced that calling a mean person a bitch or a cowardly person a pussy hurts women in general, but it seems likely that it might, so I'm leaning towards the opinion that I should stop using such epithets. Then there are terms which are thought of as sexist, but aren't insults as such, like bird, chick, sometimes girl, and so on. I think they're pretty context dependent in many cases, but it's good to be aware of them.

The other hot button issue is terms which do not insult women, but which seem to imply that men are at least the default, if not actively superior. I'm really conflicted about those. The argument that saying chairman rather than chairperson makes it harder for women to take charge of meetings and companies seems really implausible to me. However, there does seem to be increasing evidence that this sort of thing really does matter. Words that mark women as exceptional seem to be a bad idea; I don't at all regret the demise of lady doctor / doctoress or undergraduette. Things like actress and waitress seem to be heading the same way, but some people think that actor and waiter are explicitly gendered masculine, and want to say waitron / waitstaff, and er, what's the gender neutral form of actor? Although it grates, altering words which actually refer to a man is probably worthwhile, though replacing them with reasonable neologisms seems more likely to succeed than using clunky constructions where man becomes person. I really can't buy in to the idea that it's needful to find-and-replace every possible incidence of a syllable that sounds like it might have to do with men, because that just leads to monstrosities like herstory, girlcott, a-people, personscript and the like.

Pronouns. I think English very much needs a true epicene pronoun, and I think any effort to create one is very nearly doomed. (Mainly I think it's needed to allow people to opt out of picking sides in the gender binary, but I think that too is a feminist goal, as well as helping uncomplicatedly female identified women.) Short of that, the question arises about what to do when writing about hypothetical people. I was resistant for a long time to altering the generic he which has become standard at least for formal writing, but now I know more about the history of how singular they was deliberately marginalized, I am prepared to relax my prescriptivist stance and accept that singular they is correct because it comes naturally to most native speakers. (Swedish people speaking English tend to use the formally correct generic he, and it's actually starting to sound weird and stilted to my ears.) Also, partly because feminists have kicked up a fuss about it, he now sounds explicitly male, and therefore should be avoided. I think it's more important to think about the content of writing, and not assume that a generic person is male unless otherwise specified, but making an effort with pronouns may help to counter that lazy assumption. It should go without saying that when speaking about an individual, I will try to find out, and subsequently respect, that person's choice of pronoun.

Gender neutral liturgy

One subset of the debate about gendered language is how one handles religious texts to avoid implying that God is male, or that worshippers always are. This is something I'm very much involved in, because I end up leading services and dealing with liturgy a whole lot. Of course, in this case, there are pretty strong conservative forces, as there's a real value in keeping texts familiar. I am generally on board with altering language to get away from the metaphor of God as an old man in the sky, primarily because God is not supposed to be a super-powered person, as much as because that might lead to people thinking God is male. So, let's translate God's name as "Eternal One", rather than "Lord"; the latter is a translation of a euphemism, but it definitely carries unwanted connotations, and it seems more theologically valid to refer to God as the root of existence (though of course we don't pronounce the Divine name in Hebrew) than as a powerful feudal leader. I don't know if the use of the male pronoun for God historically meant that God was seen as male, but it certainly comes across that way now, so I generally avoid pronouning God at all where I can. Of course, there are also plenty of neutral and abstract terms for God, Almighty, All-present, Holy One, Most High, and so on.

In contrast, I don't think we should throw out the metaphors which talk of God in masculine terms. Source of our life and our Sovereign is a horrible, weak rendition of Our Father, our King. There is an emotional resonance to talking about God as Man of war, Lord of Hosts, Hero, Champion etc, which is completely lost if those are replaced by gender neutral terms which also happen to be completely abstract. My preference instead is to emphasize the feminine metaphors for God alongside the masculine ones. Let's talk about God as Maternal and Nurturing, not just Merciful or Gracious. Let's delve into the texts which cast the Shechinah, the In-dwelling Presence of the imminent aspect of God, as explicitly feminine.

When it comes to talking about the worshippers, mostly the same arguments apply as for using gender-neutral language about hypothetical people in a secular context. The vast majority of the liturgy uses "we" anyway, so gender is a non-issue there. But where that doesn't work, I think it's good to be sensitive and make it clear that the community includes women. What I'm not so keen on is the attempt to find a female counterpart every time a historical male figure is mentioned, saying Abraham-and-Sarah in place of Abraham, and so on. I think that's actually counterproductive, because it makes the women seem like appendages to their husbands and brothers. Miriam wasn't the "counterpart" of Moses, she was a person in her own right, so let's talk about her actual history, rather than attributing the stories about Moses to Moses-and-Miriam. The thing that really riles me is people taking the noun adam, which explicitly means human (not man), as if it were the proper name Adam, and changing it to Adam-and-Eve. That's just illiterate, and actually takes away one of the very few gender neutral terms available in Hebrew.

(I am talking mainly about translation here. Hebrew has no grammatical neuter at all, it's a purely bi-gendered language, so trying to make it gender neutral just linguistically doesn't work. I suppose one could try to use the feminine plural as generic in place of the masculine, but it would be very unnatural and not particularly helpful, because there's just no way round the issue when talking about anything in the singular. Also, it's a lot easier to update translations than change original texts; I'm willing to change prayers when there's a good reason, but not gratuitously. And like most Jews across the spectrum, I'm not willing to alter Scripture in any way.)

Extending the argument

If I haven't stirred up controversy by now, I suspect I'm about to, when I talk about other discriminated groups. Note that I'm not saying that other forms of prejudice are analagous to racism, but rather that some of the same arguments apply. We want the world to be a better place for people who are currently disadvantaged, and we want the people we are talking about to feel respected. The same question therefore arises, how far can deliberately politically correct language help with these goals, and is it worth the annoyance of having to change habits and slightly restrict what can be said?

The issue I feel most strongly about is also the one that is most difficult to convince people of. I want to think very seriously about using language which may potentially hurt people with disabilities. At least among politically aware circles, people are just starting to notice that it's not appropriate to throw around terms like retard and spaz as insults. But even that basic politeness isn't anything like universal. Aside from using disability related terms as actual insults, many people use outdated words and phrases to talk about people with disabilities in what they believe is a neutral manner, but is actually perceived as offensive by many, words like cripple, handicapped, wheelchair-bound and so on. I understand why people are resistant to changing their habits with this sort of thing, because it's distressing to learn that you are accidentally offending people when you think you're a perfectly nice person (but just haven't kept up with the latest trends).

Indeed, it seems to me, as an outsider to the disability rights community, that there isn't quite a consensus yet about how to use language. For example, I am following the so-called "person-first" mode of saying people with disabilities rather than the disabled, but among groups that have a strong cultural identity, such as the Deaf and autistic communities, this isn't favoured, because they often don't want to talk about an impairment as a separate thing that has happened to them, but rather as an element of who they are. I don't claim to be an expert at all, but it's something I'm aware of. Even though it can be fairly fraught, I do think it's worth it to try to use language in a way that makes the world more friendly to a large minority who have dealt with some really horrendous issues of discrimination both historically and currently.

If it's hard to convince people to say uses a wheelchair rather than confined to a wheelchair, it's next to impossible to put the argument regarding disability related metaphors. I suspect part of the problem is that people actually do hold ableist prejudices, so it's not as simple as everybody agreeing that we should support people with disabilities, but arguing about whether politically correct language is an effective way to do this. Instead, a lot of people are stuck on the so-called "medical model" of disability, seeing disabilities purely as bad things which can happen to people, and obviously you can use a bad thing as a metaphor for another bad thing. But if you take into account the idea that a disability may also be part of a person's identity, then it can become problematic to throw disability terms around to indicate that something is bad, horrible, stupid or non-functional. Again, it's clear to me that it's necessary to be sensitive to context and not just find-and-replace "bad" terms with euphemistic equivalents.

I am trying to cure myself of saying that somebody is crazy, lunatic, mental or a nutcase when I mean that their point of view is irrational. Terms for stupidity are awkward, because almost all of them (even idiot) have been used as medical terms at some point in history, and as insults at other points, but ideally I'd like to see cretin and similar terms consigned to the same bin as retard. I am willing to at least hesitate before using crippled or paralysed in a metaphorical sense, or blind and deaf to mean unperceptive. I am rather expecting to get angry comments about this paragraph, because every time I've seen the topic raised, even among generally politically aware people, I've seen major, major resistance to the idea.

Along similar lines, though again not making any direct analogies, I personally would be much happier if fat were not used as a negative intensifier. You can perfectly well call someone a bastard without calling them a fat bastard. And if some unpleasant person happens to be fat, why not criticize them for being unpleasant, rather than implying that everybody with a similar figure is equally disgusting.

Arguments against

Let me try to preempt some of the arguments I expect to be made against the view I'm taking. Yes, linguistic precision is important. If you read my journal at all, you're probably aware that I care very much about both correct grammar and choosing the most apt word to express what I'm trying to say. To some extent, artificial terms created to avoid offence can go against established ways of using the language, and can block off certain forms of expression. I am not dismissing this argument, and it's probably the major reason why I am not full of enthusiasm for political correctness. I think there's a balance between insisting on speaking the same way people did 50 or a hundred years ago no matter who gets hurt, and hacking the language to bits and speaking like a stupid bureaucrat to avoid any possible hint of offence.

Yes, the goal of making language reflect the more just society we want can be subverted by stupid identity politics. Politically correct terms can become shibboleths, which are mainly used to catch out outsiders who don't use vocabulary the same way as a particular activist group. That's what the originally perjorative term "politically correct" was satirizing. Indeed, it is very often people who make "activist" a big part of their identity who make the most fuss about terminology, sometimes ignoring the wishes of the people they are supposed to be supporting. I have read articles about people of American Indian extraction getting into arguments with white people who insisted on calling them "Native Americans" against their express wishes, for example. I think the only thing to do about this down side is to be as educated as one has time for, making sure to listen to members of the relevant minority group as much as possible, not only to advantaged activists talking about them. But that's a good idea in general if you want to work for a fair society, so I don't see this as a major extra burden.

Yes, political correctness can be taken to ridiculous extremes. However, I think a lot of the obviously comic examples are made up by not very witty comedians or people who want an excuse not to have to bother, or even to carry on being bigoted. I don't believe anybody ever seriously proposed the term vertically challenged as a euphemism for short, or insisted on saying chalkboard because blackboard was racist. Certainly nobody outside over-zealous left-wing local authorities in the 70s. Along similar lines, I have little time for the argument that being deliberately politically incorrect is a sign that you're a really direct, honest sort of guy, bravely resisting some vague conspiracy to keep middle class straight white guys down. That kind of argument is almost always a preemptive excuse for making offensive remarks. A person who really objects on principle to any kind of language alteration, or who really can't manage to remember the appropriate terms to use, doesn't need to advertise how bluff and hearty they are. It's a slightly more sophisticated equivalent of saying "I don't mean to be rude, but." It's nothing to do with "free speech" and certainly nothing to do with the surveillance-based dictatorship of 1984.

What to do with people who disagree

In short, nothing. I have very little interest in telling anybody else what they can and can't say. There are certain obviously offensive terms which I will object to hearing, but even those I am not even slightly advocating for making illegal. And for most terms which are arguably offensive, I might think less of someone who uses then, or I might point out why they are considered offensive if the speaker appears to be genuinely ignorant. But I'm not going to take any active steps to get people to change their usage. Language is a very personal thing and people have to make their own decisions about what terms they want to use or avoid. What I'm asking for in this post is for people to be mindful, and think about the ramifications rather than just casually using borderline words because they come naturally. If you decide to put the boundary between offensive and acceptable in a different place from me, I don't have a problem with that decision, but it should be a decision.

I would argue very strongly against censoring any media which contains offensive terms or even offensive concepts. Censorship is bad, mmkay? I'm totally in favour of criticizing media which promotes offensive views or uses dubious terminology, or refusing to support it financially if it's really extreme. People in public positions, particularly politicians [arrgh alliteration alert!], should face career consequences for expressing racist and bigoted views, but they should be perfectly allowed to express them. I should probably mention older works which use terms which would be unacceptable today; I don't give anyone a pass because "everybody was racist in the olden days", or something, but to my mind there's a big difference between using a no longer valid term, such as negro, and actually taking a racist view. It also seems obvious to me that fictional characters are sometimes going to express offensive views and use offensive terms, and that sort of rigour with viewpoint shouldn't be compromised because the author and readers don't agree with the offensive opinions.

Basically, you can say what you like, the question is whether you should.

I've been writing this in bits for a while, but have been very busy. I hope it hasn't grown too rambly and incoherent, and that the thread of the argument is still clear with all the tangents I've included! I'll be surprised and disappointed if it doesn't raise some strong reactions...

Whereaboooots: Älvsjö, Stockholm, Sweden
Moooood: quixoticquixotic
Tuuuuune: The Mountain Goats: Woke up new
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rysmiel: that's a long story
Date:May 16th, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
41 minutes after journal entry, 03:36 pm (rysmiel's time)
Lots of meat here, to which I have a mere sprinkling of comments.

I don't myself, think that "See that black guy over there ? He works with my mum" is a simple case, but if the purpose of the word "black" in that sentence is specifically to distinguish the guy in question from several other guys one might mean and nothing else, it would not seem to me racist at all. I do think there are entirely value-neutral levels at which human variation in skin colour crops up as a factor; if nothing else, a pale Celt like me looking for second-hand clothes in this city is going to come across a non-trivial amount of rich purples and golds and things which are colours selected, and garments designed, to look aesthetically pleasing on someone with dark skin, and which would totally fail to work on me. We could really benefit from non-charged words to discuss simple tonal values in the small but non-zero number of contexts where they are relevant. [ I have seen one too many non-USAn black person take serious offence at the "American" part of being referred to as "African-American" to be comfortable with it as a default locution. ] Sometimes it can be surprising what's actually an optimal usage; in Montreal, for example, "Eskimo" is a word that indicates "I am a clueless European who is not presuming to guess at your precise tribal origin", whereas referring to someone as "Inuit" when they are actually Inukkiak, as the majority of folks one might plausibly meet here and think "Eskimo" actually are, is a serious faux pas. [ "Native American" is also disliked for similar reasons to "African-American" above; the standard official locution is "First Nations", with which I've never seen anyone express displeasure. ]

The thing about "blind" or "paralysed" as metaphors is that to me, their primary weight of reference is very much not of people who are disabled in those specific ways. I am not sure that "blind" as a synonym for "failing to perceive" can really be disentangled from the nigh-omnipresence of vision as metaphor in English in general, all the contexts in which "see" means "understand" and "light" is used as a metaphor for understanding; I have tried writing fiction with no visual referents as a deliberate exercise and it is astoundingly difficult. And "paralysed" does not feel to me to suggest a human disability anywhere near the top of the list of weights; it is much more evocative of military advances that are bogged down, machines that are jammed and do not work, city streets brought to a standstill by strikes and so forth. I'm not angry with the point you make in that paragraph, I just find your assumptions about underlying metaphorical weights to be more anthropic than feels to me to be the case.
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livredor: likeness
Date:May 18th, 2008 10:12 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:12 am (livredor's time)
This is just the kind of thoughtful reply I was hoping for, thank you. And your exceptional skill with language makes you especially worth listening to on this topic. Very appropriate icon though; this post ended up being over 3500 words, which is slightly embarrassing!

I don't myself, think that "See that black guy over there ? He works with my mum" is a simple case,
I agree, there's no such thing as a sentence which is purely innocent in all possible contexts, because communication doesn't happen with isolated sentences, it happens with context and connotations and so on. I was trying to come up with the most neutral example possible, but I was aware that people could easily construct scenarios where the comment was in fact racist. It might well be a racist background that led me to find myself in a situation where I could use "black guy" as a distinguishing feature to point someone out.

there are entirely value-neutral levels at which human variation in skin colour crops up as a factor
Yes, definitely. And even if it's not value-neutral, forbidding people to refer to anyone's skin colour at all is incredibly stupid and entirely unhelpful for the cause of justice for POC. It's important to be able to refer to race in order to address racism, and to acknowledge the experiences that a person might have because of their skin colour. The point I was making is that the content of a remark is (within reason, anyway) more important than which term is used.

We could really benefit from non-charged words to discuss simple tonal values in the small but non-zero number of contexts where they are relevant.
Question: would you really feel uncomfortable saying, these purple and gold clothes would only suit a black person and look awful with my pale skin? But yes, non-charged words are very much lacking; most available words are either potentially offensive or self-consciously PC, and sometimes you don't want either of those options.

I really like your example about replacing the word Eskimo. I was thinking of that when I was writing the post, but you have the details clearer than I do, so it's good that you added this example to the discussion, thanks.
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(no subject) - livredor (5/18/08 10:27 am)
angoel: default
Date:May 16th, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
41 minutes after journal entry
One issue that you haven't raised in your otherwise pretty comprehensive thoughts is that of meaning shifts. In my experience, the words used to describe the oppressed minorities in the most appropriate way one year, get turned into the terms of abuse a couple of years on; these terms are therefore retired and new words are brought in. In the mean time, the previously offensive terms are reclaimed and deemed non-offensive and the wheel turns full circle.
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livredor: letters
Date:May 18th, 2008 10:32 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:32 am (livredor's time)
Yes, very good point. I meant to say something about pride words and how they can confuse the situation, especially if a term is acceptable for members of a particular group but not for an outsider. I did cover the idea that the correct choice of term can shift over time and with the political situation, but I should have mentioned reclaiming formerly offensive terms. I quite happily describe myself as queer, even though it's basically an insult when my grandmother uses it.

The other thing I didn't talk about, that was in my head when I was planning this post, was terms that stigmatize social class, such as chav and scally. (Some of them might originate from racist slurs against the Roma, but I'm never sure how true that claim is.) But even assuming they are not also racist, I have a problem with the implication that people who dress a certain way or speak with a disfavoured accent are stupid, violent and not worthy of respect.
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(no subject) - blue_mai (5/18/08 12:20 pm)
richardf8: default
Date:May 16th, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 02:57 pm (richardf8's time)
So, let's translate God's name as "Eternal One", rather than "Lord";

Let's not. It's weak and awkward, and there's no getting around the fact that "Eternal" an adjective even if we give it the noun "One" to modify.

Transliterating the Euphemism "Adonai" works fairly well, for two reasons - the first is that to an English speaking worshipper with little Hebrew knowledge, it has no meaning other than being God's name. The second is that the vocalization of that final syllable is . . . just . . . weird, so that even in Hebrew it stands apart from the word אדון in its various declensions.

The best solution I've seen is in Tamara Cohn-Eskanazi's The Torah: A Women's Commentary, where she plunks down the untransliterated tetragrammaton into the english text, thus forcing (or if you prefer, deferring to) the user to make their own choice about it.
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livredor: words
Date:May 18th, 2008 10:46 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:46 am (livredor's time)
Hi, welcome. I appreciate your input about replacing Lord with Eternal. I know what you mean about the awkwardness of using an adjective as a name, but I think with care and practice it's possible to do so without using unduly clumsy phrases.

I take your point about Adonai just being a name, and not really connecting to the idea of Lord very much. I'm reluctant to give God a name, though, because theologically I want to emphasize the point that God is something more than just a supernatural being. We sometimes, though rarely, call God "Yah", which is a name and nothing else, but mostly we either talk about God, or use titles in place of names. I do of course vocalize Adonai in Hebrew when I see either the Tetragrammaton or an abbreviation like two yuds written down, and I agree with you that that's not a major factor in making people think God is a big powerful man. But to use Adonai untranslated makes it come across as if God were some bloke called "Adonai", just like Jove or Marduk or whatever.

I dislike the solution of writing the Tetragrammaton in English texts (I've seen that outside an explicitly feminist context). What it does is encourage people to pronounce the Name, and I am conservative enough that I think they shouldn't. (The Artscroll approach of writing HASHEM is even worse, because that gives the idea that God is some bloke called "Hashem", and is generally stupid.) I have atheist friends who deliberately say the nearest approximation we know to God's name, to show that they think God is just one more imaginary sky fairy equally as irrelevant as Odin or Ra, or to specify that they mean the Judeo-Christian God. I don't like it particularly when people do that, but I can see why it makes sense in their belief system.
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(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 12:37 pm)
(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 12:56 pm)
leora: ouroboros
Date:May 16th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry, 01:08 pm (leora's time)
I've never heard of "working like a black" and I'm not sure what it means, since I'm not sure which part of the stereotypes and history to draw from. Does it mean working insanely hard under cruel management, drawing from the slavery aspect or working very lightly and trying to shirk work under the stereotype that blacks are lazy because they tried to avoid work when their only motivation was from their slave-holders?

I do not use "fair" to mean beautiful and would be very confused if anyone applied it to someone who was darkly skinned (not just black, but a whole range). To me, "fair" is a word for one particular type of beauty that is explicitly light-skinned. But I don't have a problem with it being used, because you can be beautiful and not be fair.

My main problem with "wheelchair-bound" is that it is imprecise. Sometimes political correctness and precision go together. People who use wheelchairs usually aren't bound to them. They usually spend time outside their wheelchairs. Many of them can even get out of wheelchairs without assistance. So, how are they bound to them? I'm not calling people who live in suburbias where you have to drive to get anywhere "car-bound" although it's roughly as true. A wheelchair is a tool, and it seems weird to define people by the tools they use. Especially as sometimes people with very similar problems use different tools.

Blindness is the area of disability that I am most familiar with, I think. Most of the people I know would rather people not avoid the positive metaphorical uses of vision. Feel free to say, "Nice to see you again." to a blind person even though you probably mean, "It's nice to be around you again" it's rarely the actual vision aspect you are commenting on appreciating. You can say, "I can't see what's wrong with this situation" even if there is nothing visual about it and it has only been described out loud. What I'd rather people not do is simply to assume that everyone can see. I was reading commentary on a show I just saw, and someone said something like, You'd have to have been a moron not to figure it out as soon as she said, "Look at my necklace.". That bothered me. I hadn't figured it out, because I hadn't had the visual clues, so I got it later when there were more clues in the spoken bits. But the assumption that the only options were you figured it out from the visual clue or you are stupid... well, that's offensive for other reasons as well, but still, I don't like the assumption that only people with all of their senses watch the show. In general, I don't like the assumption that people like me aren't possibly in this group, couldn't possibly be hearing/reading what you are saying, and if you happen to offend someone like that because they were unpredictably present, it's not really your fault, just bad luck that someone with that problem came by, and it's not really a problem because you obviously didn't mean ~them~. You obviously meant all of the exceptions for people with disabilities, but you don't need to bother to actually mention that such people might exist.

Yes, mentioning every exception can get tedious. There needs to be some balance. But it sucks to read something about a group you are a part of that clearly is written in a way that it is saying that people like you aren't part of this group. Which is, I think, one of the things people object to in language that assumes you are male by default. Obviously we are also including women, so we don't need to say it.

By the way, I'm not sure of my position on "bastard". It depends how divorced it's gotten from its meaning that someone was born out of wedlock. One of my family members is a bastard, and someday I hope to have some beautiful bastards of my own. But maybe that meaning will just die out, which wouldn't be a bad solution.
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taimatsu: default
Date:May 16th, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry, May 17th, 2008 12:41 am (taimatsu's time)
I believe 'working like a black' used to mean 'working very hard'. It is an old usage (I'd expect to hear it, if at all, from my grandparents' generation) and I haven't actually heard it for a long time. It crops up in older literature, of course. (Try Googling "working like a black" in inverted commas. The first two pages bring up various usages old and - surprisingly and unfortunately - new, such as racist gaffes on reality TV, and nothing otherwise excessively offensive/deliberately racist. No fascist groups or anything, I mean.)

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(no subject) - leora (5/16/08 11:52 pm)
(no subject) - ext_72852 (5/17/08 01:25 am)
(no subject) - livredor (5/18/08 03:37 pm)
(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 12:25 pm)
blue_mai: birds
Date:May 17th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 01:23 am (blue_mai's time)
S'funny when i was a bit younger i was much more sensitive to insults such as spaz and cripple. I would wince almost as hard as i would if someone said nigger. Racist slurs... well i don't know. The N-word seems to me by far the most loaded. But gypo is the most used in an openly derrogatory way, in my experience. I can't say i'm hugely fussed if someone yells chinky at me in the street, it's just a generic term of abuse. Someone at work refers to chinese takeaway as chinky, and i keep having to correct her... a pakistani friend uses paki a fair amount. Racial descriptions are a slightly different issue. Black is rarely accurate for someone of however-distant-African-ancestry, and mixed-race is a bit daft because it doesn't say what mix it is. I tend to use Oriental to refer to east asians such as Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, but i'm aware that some people find it offensive (i think it's because 1. it's treating people like objects from that area and 2. it has connotations of the Euro-centric romantic myth of orientalism). Actually i haven't met anyone who finds it offensive, but lots of people are aware that it's known to be offensive.
People are often very nervous about causing me offense because they might get my race wrong, and one of the outcomes of increased awareness of racial or ability sensitivities seems to be that there is less communication, because most people don't wish to unwittingly cause offense. Rarely do people feel comfortable asking around what other people would like to be referred to as, so they just don't ask. don't say. I'm not at all offended if someone asks whether i'm Chinese or Japanese, but they are usually afraid to ask. I've also had people imply others who can't differentiate must be ignorant - yes a typical Chinese is quite easy to differentiate from a typical Japanese person, but it's not always easy to tell, even for me. One time i got held up by a bunch of schoolboys and when i gave the main boy's dsecription to the police, she had to ask me directly what skin colour he was, and then what shade. It's an obviously useful part of the description, but it's so ingrained not to refer to the colour of someone's skin, especially a particular person (abstract peoples seem to be more acceptable), that it wasn't information i offered.

I have already given my views on being deaf to reason etc. I just feel it is such a culturally widespread way of sliding senses into metaphors that help to communicate, to illustrate a point. Did it again. But i don't think it has much to do with degrading the experience of a blind person, it is a general metaphor about having something fundamental to your nature of experience and perception taken away in a particular instance. I don't know. Well, i am feeling nervous about my imprecise language so i will leave it there. Except to agree with above about questioning the use of bastard. It may have lost it's bite, since most people don't consider children born out of wedlock to be any less good than others, but still, there remains widespread cultural pressure on parents to be married. Or rather, on pregnant women to get married.
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blue_mai: one
Date:May 17th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 01:25 am (blue_mai's time)
damn. my grammar is bad. sorry. it won't let me edit that one.
A description like paralyzed with fear basically only works if applied to a normally non-paralyzed person. it's a momentary disability and that's where the power of the description lies.
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(no subject) - leora (5/17/08 01:16 am)
(no subject) - blue_mai (5/17/08 08:55 pm)
rochvelleth: default
Date:May 17th, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
17 hours after journal entry, 01:39 pm (rochvelleth's time)
I wonder (but have no idea) whether there is a debate about gender-specific terms in gender-inflecting (if you like) languages - obvious nearby examples including French and German.

If we take French, then we see two levels of gender-assignment - one that applies to objects and concepts that have no biological gender but take masculine or feminine endings as a matter of course and attract the appropriate forms of adjectives; and one that applies to people and animals who have not only grammatical gender but also biological gender.

I suspect that anyone campaigning to remove words such as 'serveuse' or 'actrice' from French would have a much more difficult job, considering that grammatical gender assignment and agreement is such an in-built part of that language. If anyone knows more about this, I would appreciate further information, as this is just an impression.

We can hardly argue that what feminists campaign for applies only to English-language countries (and I would hope that an international revolution would be something that campaigners would desire, rather than only a local one?), and I wonder what could be done about this sort of problem practically. Of course, there are analogous problems, such as those involving cultural differences (the difference in treatment of women between, say, Britain and Afghanistan is extreme - and of course this leads to branhces of feminism that approach the subject in different ways, having as they do different basic aims).

These are just thoughts rather than arguments though.
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pne: default
Date:May 17th, 2008 06:03 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 08:03 pm (pne's time)
I thought about that when livredor mentioned that "there are also plenty of neutral and abstract terms for God, Almighty, All-present, Holy One, Most High, and so on", since that isn't true in German - the a substantivised adjective will need either a masculine, feminine, or neuter article; in attributive position, it'll need gendered endings; and so on.

Then you have things such as Slavic languages where (as I understand) it's not possible to form a sentence in the past tense without revealing the gender of the subject, since the past tense is historically a past participle and inflects for gender.
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(no subject) - blue_mai (5/17/08 07:35 pm)
(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 12:23 pm)
(no subject) - pne (5/19/08 01:13 pm)
(no subject) - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 12:20 pm)
pw201: default
Date:May 17th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 08:40 pm (pw201's time)
Objecting to "niggardly" (which I realise you aren't) seems the canonical example of silly political correctness (in fact, I've seen the word used in a backlash against perceived PC-ness, to troll people or communities who do try to enforce a certain correct language, in a similar way to asking people to sign petitions against women's suffrage). I don't think a speaker (or, at least, someone talking to other adult English speakers) should be responsible for other people not knowing what words mean.

I'm guilty of using words that mean crazy for people who I consider irrational but not mentally ill (creationists and so on). In my defence, I wouldn't use those words for people who were mentally ill, in fact, I'd use medically correct terms which tend not to go down so bad scribb1e has a similar attitude to yours, gained from hearing doctors using "crazy" or "nutter" to mean "patient with lots of symptoms who I can't cure".

I find neologisms like "people of X" or "people with X" grating, possibly because I see them as American English taking over English English (similar to another thing I saw, an American objecting to an English person describing a Chinese or Japanese person as "Oriental", saying the right term is "Asian", which it's not in the UK, because "Asian" is usually self-applied to Indian or Pakistani people). Usually, I'll write "X people" instead.

There's a certain point at which this sort of thing becomes pernickety enough to make people want to deliberately rebel against it (hence the trolling with "niggardly", I suppose). I think from your posting that the amount of self-limiting you'll do is more than I'd do. While I don't want to be grossly offensive, in marginal cases, some responsibility for taking offence lies with the offended person. If it's that marginal, I hope that people will listen to what I'm saying rather than picking out words they object to.
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cartesiandaemon: default
Date:May 19th, 2008 01:15 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
Hm, actually, I think that when your posts are that detailed, they tend to not have great controversies in the comments, that with sufficient detail people realise what you're saying is reasonable, whether they agree or not.

Although, I had to read it several times to see what you were saying :) I think: first a list of current status of "pc" language about gender and race and things; and second a call for more awareness of potentially offensive language wrt disabilities?

I think I'll go through and agree in detail with the lead up first, and then comment on the conclusions, and then throw in some nitpicks that may be interesting but don't affect the overall thrust.
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cartesiandaemon: default
Date:May 19th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry

Gender and racism language

Basically, I think everything you said was very well reasoned and agree :)

Agree that it's worthwhile to pick polite words, and agree that it's specifically worth finding out how people would like to be referred to. And agree that sometimes it's difficult to know, if the preferences are too varied or too quickly changing, and you may get it wrong, but it's very rude to deliberately ignore a preference if you do know.

And agree about the bounds of sanity of seeking gender-neutral words. And agree on pronouns

A few details about non-gender-neutral words

"Chairman" I think changing "chairman" to "chairperson" or "chair" (or "chairwoman" if you prefer that) is a bit ugly, but that there are very good reasons to do so. Once I wouldn't have thought it was worth it, but "chairman" really does give the impression of a chairman, and many people assume refers to a man and find it weird to use for a woman.

So possible solutions are to: use "chairman" for men and women and hope people stop making assumptions, or adopt an ugly alternative word. (You could in theory have "chairman" and "chairwoman", but the constitution is REALLY ugly if it says "the chairman/chairwoman shall...")

So it's not clear it's relevant in any particular instance, but I think it's worth changing such words when we can. Sometimes there's no clear alternative, which I think is more difficult. But (difficult to admit) I think if a word refers to a person and etymologically ends in "man", we should think about changing it.

"undergraduette" agree. I think "undergraduate" and "doctor" have become neutral (and "actor" is getting there), and the special term might have been an ok idea once, but is obviously the wrong way to go now.

"history" I think this is plainly over the top. It's not just unrelated to "his", I think it's plainly unrelated. You might conceivably want to change it as a way of bringing people's attention to the bias of history as taught, but the only argument for the change being necessary in general is if someone is so triggered by sexism they can't bear to see the sequence of letters "his", and I think avoiding that is a lost cause.

I think most of these examples are used tongue in cheek, either by mockers of pc-language, or by more extreme feminist groups.

"Man" used to mean mankind, like "Man was the first animal to use tools". I'm not personally offended by it, but I think it is misleading, and used both to mean "humans" and "men", and should be replaced by one of them.

"Mankind". I can see why people find it offensive, and am happy to use something else, but don't think it's a matter of urgency, I think it's pretty clear what it means.
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Extending the argument - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 01:53 pm)
Nitpicks - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 01:58 pm)
Nitpicks - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 02:06 pm)
Nigardly - cartesiandaemon (5/19/08 03:03 pm)
naath: default
Date:May 19th, 2008 02:31 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 03:31 pm (naath's time)
I think there's an intrinsic problem with insults in that in order to insult someone/something (that you have decided is bad) you need to compare them/it to *something bad* - and then someone comes along and says "but your *something bad* is not actually bad!", and slowly you run out of insults.

Perhaps that world would be a better place if we never insulted anyone! But people often have a conversational need for phrases like "that's so lame" (or "that's so gay" or so on); and so there's the search for things that it is OK to use as the *something bad* to compare the insultee to.

I often use "stupid" - because, well, to be honest, I think being stupid is a Bad Thing (tm); which is probably horrible elitist of me. Perhaps words like "shit" and "crap" are OK, because excrement is pretty universally regarded as icky - but then they seem very uninventive.

These thoughts mostly occur to me when I want to be rude to/about someone/thing and end up not being able to think of any OK words to use. I mean, I want to be rude about the specific person/thing and not incidentally about some huge group of people.
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cartesiandaemon: default
Date:May 19th, 2008 02:47 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
That's a good point. At the end of your first paragraph, the example of pros and cons of "stupid" sprang to mind, I was pleased to see you beat me to it :)

Many things are stupid, but it you just want to say you don't like something, "it's raining! That's so..."...
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