Words You Can’t Say
The February 2 episode of This American Life gets at some of my frustrations over our inability to have a meaningful discussion about pretty much anything.
Going through my podcast archives, I came across the February 2 episode of This American Life, titled, “Words You Can’t Say.” It gets at some of the frustrations I’ve been trying to express about the NRA boycott in particular but our broader cultural inability to have a meaningful discussion about pretty much anything. The episode’s premise:
In this politically charged climate, it feels like you have to be super careful with your language, no matter who you are or what side you’re on. Stories about people who say the “wrong” thing and suffer the consequences, including a very conservative Republican from Louisiana who’s lambasted for being too liberal.
It begins with a very short exchange between the show’s host, Ira Glass, and his surprise, as a Jewish man, that the word “Jew” is considered per se offensive among younger American Jews.
More substantively, Act One, titled, “Video Killed the Video Star,” tells the story of Laci Green, who became a minor Internet celebrity with a show frankly discussing issues of sexuality, and who soon came under heated and vitriolic criticism from pretty much everyone—anti-feminists, transgender activists, Social Justice Warriors, and even her fellow feminists—over seemingly (to me, at least) innocuous and well-intentioned word choices. (Act Two, about a pro-Trump, pro-NRA Louisiana state legislator who comes under attack as a RINO after she dared sponsor a bill to ban extremely realistic toy guns from school campuses at the urging of her local sheriff, is less interesting, at least to me, since I know that phenomenon all too well.)
You can listen to the show at either of the links or read the transcript. It’s the narrative that stands out, more than any particular snippets, so I won’t bother trying to paste excerpts here.
I know, right? People can’t even comment on websites, it’s so bad.
(Hits ‘Post Comment’ button)
As you know from my participation at this Blog, I’m a liberal, but I do not listen to “This American Life,” it seems so contrived and ‘affected.’
That said, the point of your piece, words you can’t say, is part of the reason a misanthrope like Trump was elected. I do my best to work around this definitional morass.
I’m actually a big fan of Laci Green and started watching her content right as she became the subject of vitriol. As my daughter grows into womanhood I wanted to give her some sources for accurate info about sex and Laci Green is a good source.
Anyway, punishment for political and social heresy by self-appointed priests-of-truth is a real problem.
@Andy: My frustration with her story is that, while she’s learning as she goes, she’s clearly an ally to most of those attacking her so viciously. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, I know the transgender man you’re quoting self-describes as a ‘tranny’ but that word is offensive.” It’s another to continue to pile on to her using it one time in a video from several years back after she’s apologized for it. The end result—which is presumably the point—is to simply run all but the most abuse-tolerant out of the discussion.
Alas, this is not a liberal nor conservative, republican nor democrat thing. This is a human thing. In the New Testament some guy pegs a particular group as walking around wailing, wearing sackcloth and beating themselves with sticks to prove to all around how holy they are. This is the same phenomenon. It is the Puritan, the fanatically observant Jew, the obsessive Hindu, so concerned in finding the exact formula of words and affectations that equals holiness they lose all understanding of what they are actually doing or saying. And, to me, anyway, we seem to be in a particularly rabid phase.
@James Joyner: Yes, that’s exactly the issue – any bit of heresy is punished, no matter your past good deeds.
The same thing happened with Judith Curry in the climate science debate.
I don’t see how this affects meaningful conversations. To me, someone who is not Jewish, ‘Jew’ is a very tribal word. Listen to how Nixon uses it on tape. Or how Jewish people use it. For example, an old girlfriend (who was Jewish) of mine used to make ironic jokes about her ‘Jewy nose’. To me, the idea that this word has innocent implications is just stupid.
Same goes with ‘tranny’. If you can’t hear the insult or the contempt there for the transgendered, I don’t know what to tell you. Should misusing words be the end of a career? Maybe not. But if you don’t understand what Grice called ‘conversational implicature’ you have either failed, at a deep level, to understand how language works, or you are playing at it in order to be offensive.
I’ve written about the controversies over the word “Jew” before. It goes back a long way, and if anything I’m surprised younger Jews care; I would have expected it to be the opposite way, since in my experience issues of anti-Semitism tend to cut more deeply as you get closer to the Holocaust generation.
It’s not heretical to use a word that is completely offensive to those to whom it refers. It’s just offensive. There’s clearly an ideology now that wants to confuse the two. Substituting ‘trans’ for ‘tranny’ is not at all censorship or an act of capitulation if in fact your use of ‘tranny’ referred to what ‘trans’ means. It’s merely common decency. I’m all for tolerance for mistakes; but the people who carry on endlessly about how terrible it is about how they have to be decent are ruining it for the people who make mistakes.
There is kind of an “N-word privilege” thing going on when it comes to ethnic humor. In yeshiva as a kid, my classmates used to tell jokes that would probably get a Gentile celebrity in trouble if they were caught telling it. (This was one of my favorites.) Even as an adult, a rabbi friend of mine during a Talmud class told a Jew joke and we all laughed, but when I went home and looked it up on Google, the first hit actually took me to a neo-Nazi page called “N***er jokes” filled with very un-PC humor directed at blacks, Mexicans, and Jews. I’m not making this up.
Welcome to my professional life where a mildly off-color joke can kill your career. Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) is being ripped for a couple of mild jokes. I just got done telling my UK publisher that under no circumstances would I do or say anything public until sanity returns. The Progressive far left lacks the racism and misogyny of the Right, but they are every bit as intolerant and indifferent to consequences and very nearly as stupid.
In fact, if Republicans hadn’t turned their party over to the FSB and the KKK, I’d be bitching at the trivial-minded, magical-thinking, historically-ignorant, narrow-minded, schismatic ass-clowns of the far Left.
But as you say, James, conversation, a rational exchange of views is no longer possible. So I’m GTFO of kidlit, and the minute I made that decision it was as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. The second biggest reveal to me in the last couple of years has been the extent of misogyny which I recognized but badly underestimated. But the biggest reveal was the realization of just how stupid people are. It’s one of the reasons I come here, because occasionally one of the headliners or a fellow commenter will make an argument I haven’t heard a million times before. But the extremes, which now includes the entire Right, and their smaller echo on the Left, lack the capacity to advance let alone defend an argument.
I don’t think there’s confusion. The issue for me is, that the pendulum has swung so far that some group of people can declare something “offensive” and thereby shape or cutoff debate about a topic – and then use that misstep to ruin someone’s career.
The practical problem is that it’s not apparent to normal people where these lines of offense lay, who is drawing them, and if they are legitimate or not.
Edit: Also what Michael said.
I have been flamed at this very site for saying – in what I thought was obvious jest – certain things that were impolitic to the local populace. I am all for the carefully chosen phrase (since that’s kinda my job), but one of the problems with on-line interactions is that we can’t (or don’t) build up the same trust with each other. As a result, bad wording is taken for bad intentions or bad faith. It would be nice if we could get past that to the ideas, but that is a limitation of this medium.
There are no allies on the far Left, everyone is an enemy, and yes, any deviation from the doctrine-of-the-moment is attacked ruthlessly.
Another example: President Reagan was once caught off-mic telling an anti-Irish ethnic joke and then he said, “See, I can tell that, being Irish.”
Of course, part of that had to do with the fact that Irish Americans are so thoroughly assimilated by now (and even back in the 1980s) that the idea of being racist against them just comes off as absurd rather than offensive. I don’t think people would have had quite as benign a reaction if, say, Obama had been caught telling a black joke.
@Modulo Myself: It’s worse than just “tranny” being offensive. Now you have to navigate “transgender” vs. “transgendered”, and god help you if you get it wrong (it’s the former, but a lot of perfectly fine people who have no strong negative feelings about transgender folks will unwittingly use the latter).
I put an honest effort into addressing people as they want to be addressed. I tend to assume that other people also do, and give them the benefit of the doubt, at least at first.
More people need to be like me.
That said, there are certain specific phrases that are used as cultural markers, and some of those cultures are just better off ignored. “Homosexual”, when applied to people in a non-academic setting, for instance — everyone knows the word is “gay” and someone using “homosexual” is trying to make a point or is really, really old.
@Kylopod: There was a period of time where the “acceptable and polite” word was “Hebrew”, at least in the U.K. (see R. Austin Freeman’s books for an example.) The only instance I’ve run into of the term “Jew” being used at that time was in The Magic Pudding and was obviously chosen for rhyme and meter. (There are quite a few other terms used in turn-of-the-century literature–obviously considered either a) derogatory, b)lower class, or c) uneducated.)
(What was used in the US around 1900, I wonder? Same as the English use or was it totally different?)
@Modulo Myself: We’re talking “Jew” used as a noun, not as an adjective.
As to the T-word,
This wasn’t a middle-aged person using it to be offensive. It was a kid who was a fan of a transgendered mini-celebrity aping his language.
Steven Taylor and I have known each other for 20-odd years, working together as colleagues at Troy well before we started blogging. We’ve frequently remarked to one another, and occasionally written about, how much our own views have evolved over the years as a process of this ongoing online conversation. People will bring in perspectives and arguments we hadn’t had occasion to grapple with before and, over time, our attitudes have shifted. But we seem to be anomalies in that regard.
This is where I am. I don’t mind vigorous, good faith argument. But the online version has so much virtue-signaling and poisoning the well that it’s really hard to have a legitimate exchange of views.
It’s not isolated to the Left by any means but the Left has done a “better” job than the Right on policing language. (As the NRA example in Act Two of the TAL episode shows, the Right is more about what Stephen Colbert dubbed “Truthiness”—how we feel is more important than what’s actually true.)
The reality is that “political speech” in mainstream culture has pretty much become entirely pre-symbolic. People repeat phrases that their group says a lot to show that they are loyal members of the group. That those phrases may contain words that could mean something is irrelevant to the purpose of repeating them.
Laci’s actual “offense” is the political equivalent of someone wearing the wrong color shirt in gang territory.
The problem is then compounded by the fact that, thanks to modern social media, we’re all always in every gang’s territory.
@michael reynolds: I wish that wasn’t true, but it really is.
On the plus side, the far left that acts that way is generally just mocked, even by the medium left. That wing of the far left is mostly self-contained because only 1.2% of the population can be that pure, and no one is quite sure whether that .2% really belongs there.
@michael reynolds: In your experience, do you think it’s worse in England than it is over here? I’ve been following the Guardian (due to the whole Brexit mess) and it’s quite surprising to me sometimes what their writers get a knot in their knickers about.
I hope that you haven’t gone away from writing entirely–or are you deciding to take a well-deserved sabbatical and hoping the world will have returned to its senses by then?
(I’m a physicist, so for me it’s much easier when dealing with the loony left. I simply get to say “it will blow up/poison you/go radioactive if you do that.”)
The Jew/Jewish thing may be a regional thing. Where I grew up (suburban SE Pennsylvania), most people used “Jewish” exclusively and using “Jew” was generally a subtle hint that the person saying it was a klan member.
Perhaps I fall into the latter category but I used “homosexual,” until quite recently, as a catch-all. That is, I used “gay” or “lesbian” to refer to specific individuals or groups of known gender identity but “homosexual” to refer to the broader group and, inaccurately but more simply, the entire sphere that’s now LGBTQ or whatever the hell the current acronym is. (We’re at the point where there are so many subsets, virtually impenetrable to casual observers, that it has become a landmine.)
@Stormy Dragon: Maybe so—although Ira Glass seemed completely unaware of it. I’ve long understood that, say, “Jew doctor” or “Jew accountant” was a slur but presumed “A Jew, a Catholic, and a Seventh Day Adventist walked into a bar” wasn’t.
This is not a bug, it’s a feature. The real purpose is to identify whether you are a member of the local activist community based on knowing which specific variant of the acronym is currently in favor.
I upvoted you, but feel it deserves an expansion: There are no allies on the far [insert group here]. At some point groups get taken over by the purity police who gesture and posture as to who is the most perfect. The safe way of dominance signaling is to attack the weak insiders and the outsiders. It is the behavior of the mean girls at school, of the jocks versus the nerds, and just about every other group in existence. Heck, I once quit an all volunteer, no-dues neighborhood organization because it got taken over by these types. At the time there wasn’t a row house on the block that could get 6 figures. Some Irish guy once said: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Truth is, in times like this, you just have to hold onto your hat and your convictions. Cycles like this eventually settle down. Unfortunately, they never go away.
Again, people being unaware of it is intentional. If the nuance is easy for a casual observer to figure out, it loses its usefulness as a membership identifier, because any outsider could mimic it.
Holy hell, I live in the heart of Brooklyn, where people can be ‘queer’ or ‘gay’, ‘gender-questioning’ or ‘trans’, or this or that, and it’s not a landmine or a struggle. You can talk about the #metoo movement as a straight dude or a cis man or whatever you want to call yourself, and it’s not unsafe to do so. That is, if you don’t creep people out, because every woman I know has billions of stories about creepy men who live lives of bad faith. And that’s just the world. I honestly have a vague sense what the difference is between ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ but I’m not going to belabor the point, because I sort of get the difference. There are definitely people who throw themselves into their identities as performance, and that is terrifically irritating; but I don’t know if they would be any less irritating as people otherwise.
Honestly, I think much of the Laci Green story and the conversation that I wanted to have about it is really more about the online world than IRL. We’re less likely to confront one another and more likely to give one another benefit of the doubt in person. Online, there’s more of a pack mentality precisely because of the anonymity and not having to attack face-to-face.
Yes, and if you look at the link I provided, we just had this very discussion here a couple of weeks ago.
Well, in that discussion from a few weeks ago I quoted a New York Times article from 1913 that included the sentence “More than 500 Hebrews crowded Clinton Hall last night and took part in an enthusiastic meeting…in honor of Nahum Sokelew, the Zionist, and editor of the best-known Jewish newspaper in Russia.” When I did a newspaper archive search, that was around the time that use of the word “Hebrew” faded.
And that’s exactly what we’ve been discussing. “Jew” as an adjective (as in “Jew lawyer”) and as a verb (as in “to Jew someone down”) are inherently racist terms, of course, but even the noun form has been a source of contention for centuries. Compare the sentences “Jared Kushner is Jewish” and “Jared Kushner is a Jew.” The first sentence sounds unremarkable. The second–well, if someone just said it out of the blue, it might lead to suspicions of anti-Semitism.
Obviously this isn’t some hard-and-fast rule. I’ve described myself and other people as “a Jew” many times. But it can come off sounding a bit rough, depending on the context. Of course people sometimes overcompensate about this. During the 2000 election the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg found numerous news articles referring to Lieberman as a “Jewish person,” the common PC phrase of choice used to avoid using “Jew” as a noun.
There was a recent example illustrating the problem. After Roy Moore was accused of being anti-Semitic in a remark he made about George Soros, his wife Kayla disputed the charges on the grounds that “One of our attorneys…is a Jew!” Now, the statement would still have been hilariously tone-deaf even if she’d described their attorney as “Jewish.” But her use of that phrase “a Jew” was just the topping on the cake.
I’m bisexual, and I prefer “homosexual” to “gay”.
In my mind, they’re essentially interchangeable but the first would lead me to think he’s observant and the second would signal ethnic identity but not necessarily religious belief. But YMMV.
That may be the case where you are from. Where I’m from, saying the second sets off a mental warning buzzer.
@Stormy Dragon: I can see that. Oddly, until well into the 2016 contest, I was mostly of the impression that anti-Semitism was a weird relic of a bygone era. I knew that Skinheads and other neo-Nazi types (and, really, bigots everywhere including the likes of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, where there are next to no Jewish people) hated Jews. But I thought that, for most Americans, Jews were just white people in the way that the Irish are.
I grew up in a very non-Jewish town, with one of the few Jewish families being our neighbors and very close friends. We had them over for Easter and Christmas, and vice versa for Seders and Hanukkah. They were not exactly observant and we were liberal Episcopalians, so there was basically a total lack of religious conviction involved. Anyway, I heard the other side of every way to say someone is Jewish. Kingsley Amis supposedly said whenever he saw a Jewish name at the end of a show’s credits: “There goes another one.” And that’s mostly what I hear in ‘Jew’. Of course, Woody Allen is Annie Hall is also kind of right about paranoia, but so what?
@Modulo Myself: To me, the idea that this word has innocent implications is just stupid.
Uh…I know you may have missed it because the movie pretty much sucked but a remake of “Ben-Hur” came out not too long ago. Let’s round up all the reviews of it. You give me a dollar for every one that uses the word “Jew” in a completely innocent context. I’ll give you a dollar for every one that doesn’t use the word at all.
It’s a word with a checkered history, to be sure, but this sort of unthinking absolutism is exactly the problem.
I mean, it wasn’t the KKK who named it the “National Association for the Advancement of COLORED PEOPLE.”
Even into the 90’s, there were school districts in the more rural parts of the county I grew up in that had people who were openly members of the klan on the school board.
Very short comment from an old southern guy who grew up hearing ‘ni99er’ and ‘queer’/’faggot’ and such as normal conversation between people who were normal in my (middle-class) neighborhood. Those words were a way of policing general public attitudes; if you were offended (I wasn’t allowed to use those words but I didn’t know why) you were obviously buying some future problem. Problem solving and real conversations were pretty difficult in those situations too. When I first encountered ‘P.C.’ language arts it seemed actually kind of liberating to know that there was a way to describe someone of African or Jewish or non-heterosexual without being cruel.
Hmmm…. Maybe not so short.
I’ve mentioned this several times before, but perhaps the most bizarre example I’ve ever seen of how wording can affect poll results came in 2010. Some respondents were given the question “Do you favor or oppose gay men and lesbians serving in the military?” while others were asked “Do you favor or oppose homosexuals serving in the military?” Of those who received the first question, nearly 20% more responded favorably than among those who received the second question.
It never occurred to me until I saw this poll that “homosexual” could be read as a pejorative expression, but on reflection it makes some sense. The term goes back to the 19th century when the condition was widely believed to be a mental illness. The word still has a distinctly clinical ring about it. “Gay” was a term popularized in the 1960s as part of what was then known as gay lib, so it makes sense why it would have acquired a more positive connotation. For those who remember the commenter Superdestroyer here, he was a massive homophobe who was constantly talking about “homosexuals.” It’s a term that people make a point of clinging to when they want to signal a refusal to embrace modern tolerant attitudes.
A few years ago I was reading Elizabeth Drew’s Showdown, a book written in the 1990s about the Clinton-Gingrich battles from that era. Drew is one of these dry, professional, thoroughly mainstream Beltway journalists who appears on Sunday talk shows and the like. So it took me a little aback when the book referred to Barney Frank as an “avowed homosexual.” It struck me as odd phrasing, since “avowed” is an adjective you normally put next to a controversial or taboo belief system, as in “avowed communist.” The term “openly gay” apparently had not yet caught on when this book was published. It goes to show how much has changed in just 20 years.
I was born the same year Annie Hall came out, and yet I have had moments very similar to Alvy Singer. For years I thought the song “Stairway to Heaven” contained the line “And it’s whispered to soothe if we all call the Jew.”
It’s hard for me to parse what is and is not OK in the UK. So far I’ve toured AK, Oz, NZ, Ireland, Netherlands and of course the US. The only time I’ve ever seen a teacher upset by anything I said it was in Texas. But in the UK I’m an outsider, so different rules apply. For example, a Brit may find a joke bout the Welsh or the Scots to be ‘racist’ and see no issue in doing an exaggerated Mexican accent while wearing a sombrero.
No, I’m not quitting, just moving to adult books. It was time anyway, the big projects I have left are all adult stuff. And it’s not the trauma it would be for some people – walking away is a specialty of mine. There are two kinds of people (yes, just two) in this world. Those who ride their covered wagon to North Dakota and think, “Sure it’s freezing and miserable, but by golly I’m gonna stick!” Then there’s the other kind that thinks, “Are you out of your fwcking mind? It’s North Dakota. California’s that way.” I’ve never seen a reason to endure misery if I can just bail.
That’s definitely right. But online culture has always been crazy and intolerant about minor differences. Usenet in the late 80s/early 90s was where trolls came from, and that was pure geek culture regarding things that ‘normal’ people had no idea about. Now, trolling is what the President does.
And now you know why I have never regretted dropping out of high school. People can have all the poisonous little internecine battles they want. I don’t do turf battles, I fight for ideas, not status. Status in whose eyes? And who gives a sh!t?
Way back when we were just hacking for Sweet Valley Twins we made a key decision. There are a number of metrics you can apply to judging a writing career: critical acclaim, the respect of peers, fan enthusiasm, longevity, fame. We rejected all those as meaningless. So we judged our careers by income, which people think is crude and lacking in poetry, but has the great advantage of being real. You can’t do anything with respect or acclaim, you can do just about anything with money.
I think good faith is something people have become very cynical about on the internet, and in life in general as media and technology has splintered and factionalized our society into separate, untrusting camps that are crippled by fits of paranoia and viciousness, as the media became increasingly desperate, vicious, and factionalized themselves. Rhetorical dunking and gotchas! and twitter bot-swarms became the way to influence people and institutions by threatening guilt by the thinnest of associations. No one wants their dirty laundry to go viral.
With online media promising instant validation and confirmation of any and all belief systems, people are losing the skills to navigate broader society. Part of it is a societal reckoning and backlash driven by technology that was long overdue (“Oh, women and children *are* routinely assaulted and raped!” “Oh, black people *really are* killed for no reason by police, and those police *do* plant evidence on their bodies!” “Nuh huh, they’re not! BLOOD AND SOIL!”). Part of it is learning by imitation the unaccountable behavior of the internet, so people take that assholeishness “off-line.” Part of it is mimicking our media and political elites, because it’s easier for CNN and MSNBC and Fox to devote airtime to tweetstorms from Mark Hamill instead of doing investigative reporting by reporters in every state and nation on the planet.
The internet Wild West phase has simply brought us 21st century tribalism and polluted knowledge and institutions, and the shattering of civic duty and good faith. No one knows who to believe. No one knows who to trust. No one knows how your time and effort is best utilized. The easier for our algorithms and databases to manipulate you, my dear.
You are 100% right that online (and other electronic) communications are the key change here. But it’s more than just anonymity and the lack of face-to-face.
Online makes attacking and critiquing easier. And the moment commenting is enabled, the audience has just as much volume and power (if not more) than the initial author (unless they are willing to curate conversations). And, if we are honest, voting and other systems incentivize conflict (not to mention see “conflict” as a synonym for “engagement”).
The overall cost of joining and participating in an attack is also super low (even from a time investment).
Plus the fact that the nature of digital is that it’s really hard to eliminate media or anything else once its been placed into the wild, and because those files are so easy to link to, makes it difficult for anything to die.
Beyond all that, online media is very easily exploited by social hacks (as we keep getting reminded). This provides provocateurs and fringe groups with a number of tools to easily gum up the works with a relatively low investment.
That’s generational and regional. My father immigrated from Ireland in 1950 and ended up in Chicago. When I moved to New Orleans in 1991 I invited him to visit and given that I knew he didn’t like flying, suggested he drive down. He hemmed and hawed and I was surprised that he was reluctant. I later asked my mother what was going on and she told me that as a middle aged Irish immigrant with an obvious brogue, he was not going to willingly drive through the American South. He had heard too many stories from the Irish community about being beaten, humiliated or worse for being a “Papist” and a “drunken Mick”.
So imagine what my father heard when someone used the term “Mick”. It wasn’t just a nickname. It wasn’t harmless.
And that’s the real difference. Someone wants to be called African American. OK, fine. I may not see it, but I can make the effort to call someone what they want. If someone feels that Jew sounds off (in fact, it sounds off to me) then I’ll use Jewish. But if someone calls me a bigot for not knowing the code or how language has changed, then they are just being a jerk. I’m not obligated to know all the codes ahead of time.
That said, you can’t change how you react. When I was trying to learn Chinese, language lessons said it was polite to call a waitress “Miss” (XiaoJie). It turns out that this was perfectly acceptable in Shanghai but in Beijing you were really shouting “Prostitute” across a crowded restaurant. (Or do I have that backward? God, I better bone up before I go back…). And if I made that error, intentional or not, I would be instantaneously be seen as a jerk, at least on the emotional level.
There are several problems with that assumption.
First, there are Jews of all races and colors. Whenever people pose the question “Are Jews white?” they are almost invariably talking about Ashkenazic Jews with a recent family history in Eastern and Central Europe, which happens to be the vast majority of Jews in the US. More broadly, “Jewishness” is simply not a racial category.
Second, it’s a peculiarly American convention to look at bigotry almost entirely through the lens of color. Historically, Jews endured a truckload of persecution from people who often looked physically indistinguishable from them.
Finally, while institutional discrimination against Jews is largely dead in the United States, studies have shown that anti-Semitic beliefs are still fairly widespread, and anti-Semitic hate crimes still happen quite frequently every year. When was the last time you heard of a hate crime against an Irish American?
I prefer “homosexual” for two reasons:
1. I feel that “gay” sounds very informal vs. “homosexual”.
2. I feel that “gay” refers to a particular way of expressing male homosexual identity that I feel excludes other equally valid expressions.
@Kylopod: That’s fair. I just mean “white” in the sense of “not standing out” but perhaps that’s mighty white of me. Ultra-Orthodox Jews (I’m not sure the correct term as there are multiple groups) are typically Caucasian here but they aren’t “white” in the sense that, like the Amish or Mennonites–also white–they are seen as an “other” by the mainstream outside their local communities.
We are intermittently white.
I think that sums it up really well.
Also, the story of your father reminds me of one of my own.
Back in the 80’s I used to be a member of an Irish bagpipe band and, like our Scottish equivalents, we did the rounds at various regional highland games and competitions. The only real difference was the kilt (ours were solid orange – a latent political statement itself – and ironic considering the reaction we got) and the music. At one games, members of the Scot’s Guards regiment were there. They were not only combat veterans from Northern Ireland, but also excellent musicians. They were decidedly…not friendly. They would walk by our area at the games and say “f$cking Irish” just loud enough for us to hear. We ran into them at a bar and there was almost a fight.
Anyway, fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and our band leader talked to theirs and we kept our distance. They were scheduled to tour Chicago and Boston later that summer – I half expected violence or one of them to end up dead.
@Stormy Dragon:I’m curious how old you are? I’m 57 and old enough when “gay” was an insult, and usually accompanied by a wrist flip. But my impression is that the younger crowd have always seen it as an inside the group label.
I think that is a fair point.
However, it’s also important to note that if someone corrects you*, or asks you to use a different term, and you continue to use your preferred term, then that’s at a minimum impolite (if not moving quickly towards bigoted).
I remember a lot of “I don’t see why I have to call a black person an ‘African American'” arguments in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Or even worse “They change what they’re supposed to be called ever few years… why couldn’t they just settle on ‘colored.'”
Or the ever popular “I’m Polish and don’t mind being called a ‘lock — so why I can’t I call them n*ggers?”
* – To be clear, that’s a generic “you” there…
I’m decidedly middle-aged.
It’s “transgender,” James. “Transgendered” isn’t gramatically correct because “transgender” is an adjective, not a verb.
No, you’re not, and someone who holds it against you rather than simply telling you what’s preferred is being rude. At the same time, though, if they tell you the term you’ve used is offensive and you continue using it, you’re acting in a bigoted manner.
@Mikey: And I see @matt bernius beat me to that one. 🙂
Well, to start with, as I mentioned American Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic, and that includes Jews all across the religious spectrum. That’s part of what contributes to the popular image of Jews as being about as “white” as, say, Italian-Americans. It’s very different in Israel where a large segment of the Jewish population (a majority until the influx of Russian immigrants in the past few decades) is non-Ashkenazi, and there are significant numbers of dark-skinned Jews such as the Beta Israel from Ethiopia or the Bene Israel from India.
With regard to ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews, both terms are most often applied to Hasidic and Lithuanian Jews–both strictly European groups. There are Sephardi Haredim (the Israeli party Shas represents them), but more broadly the entire division of Judaism into its Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform varieties was something that happened within the Ashkenazic community–so in a sense these are Ashkenazic categories that were later imposed on Sephardic Jews.
Of course, most white nationalist groups do not consider any Jews to be white (though Jared Taylor says he’s okay with Jews of European extraction). Far-right anti-Semitism typically casts Jews as the enemies of the white race due to things like their support for the civil rights movement or their bankrolling of black musicians. This is a theme that goes all the way back to the Nazis, but it continues to the present day. When an elderly neo-Nazi tried to shoot up DC’s Holocaust Museum in 2009 (killing a black security guard in the process), he had written a book accusing Jews of a conspiracy to destroy the white race.
That’s certainly true – as long as the term is reasonable and in common usage.
In my mind, and I’m casting no aspersions on you, Dr. Joyner, the first is acceptable, and the second is a slur. Not saying I’m right, but that’s my take on it.
Of course, it also depends on who’s saying it. Dr. Joyner saying “Jared Kushner is Jewish” isn’t the same as David Duke or Alex Jones saying “Jared Kushner is Jewish”.
Thought experiment – Would Mel Brooks be able to make Blazing Saddles today?
Perhaps the answer is simply to ignore people on Twitter. And other forms of social media. I see an article on Joss Whedon or Woody Allen, and from the number of screeching comments you’d think the entire country was rising up against them. Then you go back and look who’s posting, and it’s a handful of obsessives posting again and again and again.
The problem is not that small groups of people demand perfect purity. It’s that anyone listens to them.
I knew we had jumped the shark about a year ago when an Australian comedic actress speaking on a British talk show, The Graham Norton Show, was saying something about the indigenous black people in Australia, caught herself short and after a moment of concern, called them African-Americans. I’m not sure what the accepted term is, but not African, and not American, for sure.
@Andy: He might not be able to make “The Producers” today.
I’m a fan of John McWhorter, a linguist who hosts a weekly podcast called Lexicon Valley (ha ha). Two things he repeats a great deal is that 1) words are constantly changing, or new words keep intruding all the time (he wrote a whole book about it), and 2) many “new” words or expressions turn out to go back decades if you dig around, though their popularity might be new.
He means this for all language and all contexts. So we should expect insults, offensive terms, descriptive terms, “correct” terms, and so on to be no different.
Sure. But that gets to the fact that there’s more to bigotry than simply the use of epithets. Remember that UCLA student who was kicked out for making a video bemoaning “Asians in the library”? She was using the accepted and PC term for Asians, but she was still being racist. “Jewish” is not an anti-Semitic slur by any definition, but anti-Semites still use the term. “Jew,” on the other hand, can be an anti-Semitic slur, depending on the context.
I’m a big fan of his writings on linguistics–I particularly recommend his book Word on the Street. But politically he tends toward an annoying “Fox News Democrat”-style concern-trolling. In 2007 he was going around saying the only reason for Obama’s rise was because he was black (though I think he ultimately voted for him).
That’s weird, if it’s true. I’ve heard Americans on occasion inadvertently refer to non-US blacks as “African American.” It comes from the fact that to an average American, most blacks in their experience are going to be black Americans, and by habit the term “African American” is processed simply as a synonym to “black.” But it’s strange to hear that error from an Australian.
1. I am a UCLA grad, and follow the school as much as possible.
2. She wasn’t kicked out. She left school voluntarily.
3. THE VIDEO WAS RACIST!!!! If were to say “African Americans are lazy and shiftless”, would that be okay since I used the term “African American” instead of “Ni**er”? That’s what that UCLA student did, in a way.
Here’s a small snipped from the NY Times on the piece:
This is not, NOT, a case in which you want to side with the woman who posted the video.
She posted a racist video, then was surprised when people took offense.
@Kylopod: Cool! I discovered him accidentally through Audible when “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” was on sale. Then years afterwards I found his podcast.
I don’t care much for linguistics, but he’s really good at making it interesting.
Gotta get me a T-shirt with that quoted on it.
Thus the humor of whichever comic it was whose routine included someone who was prejudiced against Presbyterians.
“Looks like one o’ them Prez-bye-terians.”
“Yup. Can smell ‘im from here.”
Um…who do you think you’re arguing with? I said, “She was using the accepted and PC term for Asians, but she was still being racist.” You quoted me saying this, then somehow managed to construe me as saying she was not being racist and that I was “siding” with her. Are you drunk or something?
@DrDaveT: I was once listening to a joke tape, and they did a running series of “Iowan” jokes based on the premise that Iowans are stupid. They were clearly trying to do a version of the traditional ethnic jokes where the target are groups like, say, Poles, but choosing one of the most inoffensive and anodyne targets just so you’d know they were only kidding.
In traditional Jewish humor, jokes about the “wise man of Chelm” are set aside for that purpose.
Sorry Stormy. No one decides to be middle aged. 😉
@matt bernius: Good points all. I figure, I’m a middle aged white guy at a time when someone of Irish descent is considered wholly human and completely white ( and, no, that wasn’t always true). Even if I think someone is taking the label thing too far, it’s really not my job to have an opinion about it. Reminds me of this Bloom County comic. Sure, I can say it’s getting worked up over trivialities, but I didn’t have to endure the struggle and strife to get to each label.
@Mikey: @JKB: my god, I upvoted a JKB comment. What is the world coming too 😉
@Kylopod: I just heard that same error made about John Boyega (Finn from the New Star Wars trilogy) who is incredibly British.
@MarkedMan: Well in fairness he puts on an American accent in the Star Wars films, so they might incorrectly think he’s an American. But I’ve heard it applied even to people widely known to be British, such as Idris Elba (as Vanity Fair did). The real striking thing is when you know a guy’s British and you still call him an African American. That’s a matter of linguistic habit, not ignorance.
I used to work with a guy from Des Moines. One day he says, “Did you know Iowa is actually an acronym? It stands for ‘Idiots Out Walking Around.'”
And there’s the frequent butt of jokes, Cleveland. The Onion did a piece about Cleveland’s fantastic new elevated open sewage system (satire, of course, being The Onion). Someone commented “Cleveland already has an open system for moving sewage around. They call it ‘sidewalks.'”
I can say this stuff, see, because a big rule of comedy is to always punch up and I’m from Detroit.
My apologies. I misread your sentence. I read it as….
Obviously, you didn’t have the question mark in there, but in my reading, that’s how I comprehended it. I thought you were being sarcastic. So my sincere apology for misreading your comment.
And I’m not drunk…. yet. It’s only 7pm here in Burbank.
You know, I never thought of it that way. It’s strange the way sentences can be parsed and how difficult it is to process inflection and tone from writing.
I guess I was being a little hard on you. I was just a bit flabbergasted because I’ve been at OTB a long time and people here know my views, and it’s pretty astonishing that anyone would suspect me of defending something as overtly racist as “Asians in the library.”
Anyway, no worries.
@Kylopod:..they did a running series of “Iowan” jokes…
@Stormy Dragon: I’m bisexual too, but I can’t quite hear “homosexual” without a tiny echo of “agenda” following it.
Both “homosexual” and “gay” have the problem of excluding a lot of folks, but I’ve reconciled myself to bisexuals being perpetually forgotten.
Once, my Jew boss(*) was very proud that his synagogue had taken a full page ad out in the newspaper in support of same sex marriage and equal rights for everyone, straight or gay. He proudly taped it to the wall by his desk. I walked over, looked at it, and said “huh, they forgot bisexuals, everyone always forgets bisexuals, it’s like we don’t exist.” He was mortified, and I felt bad about that because it was meant as a gentle ribbing.
There isn’t a good inclusive label for all LGBTetc. The kids these days use “Queer”, but it feels wrong to anyone over the age of 35. “LGBTetc” looks like you’re making fun of them, like “LGBTLMNOP” (and, to be fair, I am making fun of them, but in a lighthearted way). So, “gay” wins by default.
(*) I just figured this was the right thread for that…
@James Joyner: Yes, I’d put you in the really, really old camp. You’re a conservative, and that puts about ten to fifteen years onto your vocabulary.
@MarkedMan: In Korea, most of the restaurants are pretty small, but the correct way to ask for the waitress is to say “Ajumma” (Auntie) unless the woman is too young to be married, in which case you would use “yeoja” (sister)–I think. Young women usually only work at chain restaurants and you don’t call out to them–too noisy–you press the call button on the table.
@Andy: Based on the fact that the first two seasons of Sesame Street, when sold by Amazon, are identified as “not suitable for young children,” I’d say no.
@EddieInCA: “And I’m not drunk…. yet. It’s only 7pm here in Burbank.”
@Andy: “Thought experiment – Would Mel Brooks be able to make Blazing Saddles today?”
Of course not, any more than Paul Schrader could make Blue Collar. Movies in the early 70s were shocking honest and sophisticated about race. And these two in particular carried a message studios today don’t allow in mainstream movies — that the upper classes use race to keep the lower classes at each others’ throats instead of turning on their real oppressors…
@Mikey: At the same time, though, if they tell you the term you’ve used is offensive and you continue using it, you’re acting in a bigoted manner
You MAY be acting in a bigoted manner. I read an article recently on gender and language that listed seven different pronouns (with six or so variations each) and stated that the list was NOT EXHAUSTIVE. Is someone a bigot because they decide it’s not their job to remember which out of potentially hundreds of arbitrarily made up words they’re supposed to use for someone they only talk to once a week?
Respect is a two-way street and it includes not demanding the other person be a slave to your linguistic preferences.
@MBunge: Did you actually, you know, read ALL of what I wrote? Let me try again.
First: you’re not obligated to know every term in an ever-evolving language, and if someone acts as if you should, they are the one being rude.
However: if you’re talking to someone and you use a term, and they politely tell you that’s an offensive term and tell you the term that is preferred, and you continue using the offensive term, you’re acting in a bigoted manner. Period.
Oh, please, give me a break. Avoiding offensive terms isn’t making you a “slave” to anything. It costs you absolutely nothing to be polite to someone.
My brother, the Reverend, repeats a joke the head of his Lutheran Synod told at the beginning of a speech.
@Mikey:..It costs you absolutely nothing to be polite to someone.
For Bungles it would cost him his shtick.
You guys had a “words you can’t say” debate and I missed it?
You lucky bastards….
I read the transcripts, and was especially interested in the story of Laci Green, since I had seen and enjoyed a few of her videos in the past. Her story didn’t sit well with me. On the one hand, she apologized for using words people found offensive, and I do believe in giving people second chances and dislike the purity police on the left who refuse to do so. On the other hand, in response to being criticized by people on the left, she started reaching out to people in the alt-right (people who had harassed her in the past), and started dating one of the guys. She is free to date whoever she wants, but she now excuses their behavior. From the transcript:
Laci Green: He just cracks me up. He’s so funny, and he’s such a sweetie. He really is. He’s got the biggest heart. You might not know it from his YouTube channel.
Kelefa Sanneh: After all those years of straining to take everyone seriously, she liked the fact that he didn’t even try. To him and to many anti-feminists, it was all a big game– people trolling each other, making dumb jokes, sometimes arguing. He didn’t take it so personally. And that’s why she liked him.
So now the behavior of alt-right harassers, who often threaten death to people online, is okay with her because they’re funny and sweet and don’t really mean it??
@Monala: I want to add that there is a big contrast between how many on the left are reacting to Laci Green, and the much more positive way many on the left reacted to Sarah Silverman reaching out to a Twitter troll with compassion. The difference: Silverman isn’t excusing his behavior, just recognizing that he was coming from a place of pain.
More on Laci Green: Here is an article about the actual incident where she used two words that some found offensive, at a talk at Grinnell College. As I read this, it seems to me that the students were very respectful to her, giving her the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t mean to be offensive, even apologizing to her when she became upset, whereas she yelled, got defensive, and then took to social media to criticize the critics: