Monday, July 10, 2006

לכל איש יש שם (everyone's got a name)

In the [15-minutes-of] famous Aljazīrä interview of Dr. Wafā’ Sulṭān, an Arab-American and former Muslim, she said:
My colleague [=Dr. ’Ibrāhīm Alḫūlī] has said that he never offends other people's beliefs. What civilization on the face of this earth allows him to call other people by names that they did not choose for themselves? Once, he calls them ’Ahl Alðimmä, another time he calls them the "People of the Book," and yet another time he compares them to apes and pigs, or he calls the Christians "those who incur Alláh's wrath." Who told you that they are "People of the Book"? They are not the People of the Book, they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their free and creative thinking. What gives you the right to call them "those who incur Allah's wrath," or "those who have gone astray," and then come here and say that your religion commands you to refrain from offending the beliefs of others?

Although I may be taking it somewhat out of context, I like the bolded excerpt from this quote as an expression of the ethic behind the much-maligned ideal of "political correctness" or PC. While PC may sometimes go too far, the basic idea behind it is what Dr. Sultan said — part of human decency is the expectation that other people will not call me by a name that I do not accept for myself. If my name were Andrew, and I preferred 'Andrew' and would also answer to 'Drew', but hated being called 'Andy' then you just don't call me 'Andy'. It's that simple.

This extends from the level of individuals to the level of groups; if a large percentage of Americans of African descent prefer to be identified as 'African-Americans' and not as 'Blacks', you listen to them. Even if 'Black' is generally held to be non-derogatory. No, it's not as bad as the N word, but it's not what they want.

If it's accepted in society that part of being a mentsh, an upstanding human being, is that you listen to people when they ask you to do them a favor — passing them the salt across the table, for instance — then shouldn't it be obvious that when it comes to issues of someone's very identity, you simply don't call them what they don't what to be called? What is hateful to you, don't do to anyone else.

Identify is defined both from the inside-out and from the outside-in.
An inside»out identity is "I am a Jew."
An outside»in identity is "You're wearing a yarmulka, you must be Jewish!"

Someone who respects other people will not impose their own external (mis)conception of who or what another person is on that other person. They will let them identify themself.

(another communique from the front lines)


Blogger Kylopod said...

While your point may be valid, your example is a perfect instance of PC brought too far: very few blacks in this country object to the term "black," and many even prefer it to "African-American." The latter is mostly a formality, and formalities can be patronizing in their own way.

7/11/2006 2:20 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

The point remains the same — if you know how someone prefers to be described, you use that.

7/11/2006 3:24 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

That's also why i said if a large percentage, since this is one of those issues that isn't so clear. Like how we're finally returning to "Jew" after insisting on "Jewish person" for a while.

7/11/2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Is a terrorist a freedom fighter? The whole group and probably every single of them would say so.

What, objectively he's not? He is a terrorist? So what - the other group is neither black nor coloured nor African as well.

(As a linguist, let me say an important point in this issue is the grey zone of proper names and generic names, together with the knowledge that a word's meaning is arbitrary in principle. Only - people, including those who prefer this word over another, read a lot of etymology etc. in it.)

What is hateful to you, don't do to anyone else

In this version or in the Kantian, I never understood: the idea doesn't work for people who don't care to be mistreated. If you say masochists (or in this case Jews who don't mind being called a kike and African-Americans who don't mind being called a nigger) are exceptions, the nice simple rule isn't there anymore. You'd be back to defining lots of fineprint casuistry.

7/11/2006 5:41 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Oh, and: sharp look. Might be time to join the Fedora Lounge

7/11/2006 5:53 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

The "Jewish person" business is something of an urban myth. I don't think a majority of Jews ever preferred that term, or had the slightest problem with "Jew," other than that it could be used derogatorily in certain contexts.

And Lipman is right, people do read far too much into etymology. I've heard people explain the shift from "Oriental" to "Asian" in the last twenty years by saying that "Oriental" is too Eurocentric because it comes from a Latin word meaning "to rise," hence the direction of the sunrise from a European standpoint. But guess what? Both "Asian" and "Eastern" are speculated to have a similar origin.

For that matter, there's no etymological reason why nigger is offensive. It's simply a variant of Negro, which is itself simply the Spanish word for "black." But both terms arose in an era where blacks were almost universally regarded as dirt, and that implication has forever affected the "feel" of the words.

Other ethnic slurs, like "kike," "spic," "wop," "chink," and "gook," are even more obscure in their origins. They're just terms that, for whatever reason, everyone has come to regard as derogatory. The strangest example may be "Yid," which among Jews has always been a perfectly neutral term, but among goyim (another questionable word!) has come to be thought of as a slur.

7/11/2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


First of all, 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' refer to two different aspects — 'terrorist' refers to methods, and 'freedom fighter' refers to goals. So while they frequently can refer to the same people, each can stand alone. Of course, people don't like to be known as 'terrorists', so 'freedom-fighters' who use terror tactics prefer to be known by their goal rather than by their methods.

I don't think etymology would really matter, unless the etymology is known; for instance, as Kylopod pointed out, the N word is etymologically just a variant on the Spanish word for "black" — it's the connotation that matters, and the connotation of nigger is "i want to lynch/enslave/rape you".

re: Masochists, 'the golden rule' is supposed to be a general guideline; i don't think it's meant to be the kind of halakha that you analyze down to every exact situation.
My father has been known to tell a joke that goes:
The masochist says to the sadist, "hurt me!"
The sadist responds, ""

Oh and that website is weird. I am not nearly oldschool enough to be Dick Tracy. Albert Morris (Kiln People by David Brin), on the other hand...

7/11/2006 9:29 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


The "Jewish person" thing is not an urban myth, because i've felt the unease associated with simple "Jew" myself. I had a Hhumash teacher in high school who used to address the class as "hey, Jews! [get out your homework, etc.]" and there was a palpable shock. We felt that there was something rude about the word, and the teacher specificly used it in order to train that unease out of us.

Like i just told Lipman, i don't think etymology has to do with it — it has to do with the connotations of the word and its acceptance or non-acceptance by those it is meant to refer to. Whatever reason people had to feel that Oriental offends them, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that it offends them, and therefore i'm not going to use it.

7/11/2006 9:33 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

In Europe, Oriental = Middle Eastern, while what you call Oriental in the US, is an Asian here. Then again, Mittlere Osten in German is an anglicism for the more idiomatic Naher Osten. And in French, oriental is simply Eastern. Er, is that clear? A general European Oriental is a Middle Eastern American, while a French Oriental is an Alsatian, though he could well have parents from Algeria, which is to the South, though, not to the East of France, but still considered part of the Orient, and -

Okay, why don't we turn to the terrorist/freedom fighter?

You write: First of all, 'terrorist' and 'freedom fighter' refer to two different aspects — 'terrorist' refers to methods, and 'freedom fighter' refers to goals.

Who cares? It's a designation they picked for themselves in their entireness, not for parts or aspects. Why wont you grant them this right?

'Black' is also just referring to one aspect, namely colour, while 'African-American' refers to a completely different one, geographical origin.

7/11/2006 1:06 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Oh yes, i remember being amused when reading certain history books that talked about the ancient Greek and Roman relations with the 'Oriental' civilizations such as the Jews, Parthians, Idumeans... :-P

Hmm... i think the reason i don't give terrorists/freedomfighters the right to choose their own complete designation is because they're freaking terrorists! What they do, and the names they attach to it, are replete with value judgements.

People's personal identity factors — color, ethnos, etc. — on the other hand, usually are value-netural.

7/11/2006 1:47 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

I recall an interesting Michael Kinsley column from several years back in which he commented on the AP's decisions to refer to the 9/11 hijackers not as terrorists but simply as "suicide bombers." It wasn't that there was any doubt the hijackers were terrorists, but that AP deemed the word "terrorist" an inherently subjective term. The problem, Kinsley said, was that the value of the term "terrorist" is that it implies there's a line nobody should cross, a method that is inherently illegitimate regardless of the cause.

Actually, I think there are objective aspects to terrorism. People often forget the "terror" element, the attempt to use violence to shake the populace up psychologically. It's not true that no group has ever self-identified as terrorist, though it's fairly rare, and certainly the method precedes the term: the KKK was probably the first terrorist group of modern times, though few people use the word "terrorist" in connection with KKK attacks, because that's not how it was described back in the nineteenth century or the earlier part of the twentieth century, when the KKK was at its peak.

The "Jewish person" thing is not an urban myth, because i've felt the unease associated with simple "Jew" myself. I had a Hhumash teacher in high school who used to address the class as "hey, Jews! [get out your homework, etc.]" and there was a palpable shock. We felt that there was something rude about the word, and the teacher specificly used it in order to train that unease out of us.

Well, what if he had said, "Hey, Jewish people"? I don't think it would have made much of a difference. What caught your attention was not so much his use of the term "Jew," but the strangeness of his pointing out people's Jewishness in a purely Jewish setting. I agree that "Jew" is sometimes perceived as rude, but this is a matter of context. The term is not inherently derogatory, and there never was any consensus among Jews that it should be avoided. The phrase "Jewish person" arose among journalists as a way of avoiding offending people, though it ended up having more of the opposite effect.

When you say we should call people what they want to be called, who decides what people want to be called? Sure, if we had evidence that 85% of African-Americans wanted to be called African-American rather than "black," then you might have a case that we should all change our language. But nobody seems to base these decisions on polls. The switches just sort of arise in the media, often with pressure from activist groups.

I wrote an essay on the Oriental-Asian switch at my blog. It is based on a research assignment I did for a sociolinguistics course, where I surveyed people of different races and nationalities for their attitudes on the subject. (Interesting tidbit: British people seem to define "Asian" as someone from India.) I did not advocate that anyone should stop using the word "Asian." It is far too well-established at this point. But I was a little skeptical of the whole movement to reform language in this way. The trend to replace racial terms with geographical ones seems based on the naive assumption that changing the way we speak will change the way we think. What's happened instead is that we've taken neutral geographical terms and given them new racial meanings. I compared this phenomenon to "running away from one's shadow."

None of this is to say that I endorse the concept of PC, one of the most overblown issues of our day, hijacked by conservatives as a rhetorical weapon they use against liberals at every turn. It started out as a legitimate complaint about censorial policies at universities. But conservatives managed to blow this issue so far out of proportion it lost all credibility. (A great deal of conservative rhetoric over the past twenty years consists of trying to blur the line between marginalized left-wing extremism and the liberal mainstream.) The recent cries of the "War on Christmas" made such hay out of so trivial a complaint (some people's personal choice to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas") it made the flag burning debate seem substantive by comparison. And people on all points of the political spectrum regularly use the PC cry to avoid responsibility for their words. Admittedly, I've used the term myself; it's hard to avoid the temptation sometimes. But what gets to me is the way people use the term as if to imply they're being bold and irreverent, when in reality they're just being hackneyed.

7/11/2006 2:52 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Away with all tags! Strangers henceforth must address me as 'Five-foot-nine-inches-tall-person'.

The oppression of five feet nine inches tall people by those overhigh glandular geeks must come to an end.

If they dare disrespect us, we'll hire 'sub-waste-level-stature-impaired-persons' to bite their ankles!

That'll teach them. My dwarfs are rabid.

7/11/2006 6:24 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


I remember exactly. It was the use of "Jews", and the teacher specificly said something along the lines of "hey, it's not a bad word."

I'm saying that you don't need to take a poll on "A-A" vs. "B"; just go with what seems to be the norm, and be ready to adjust if someone prefers something else.

Very interesting essay!

The Back of the Hill:

Ha. ha. ha. :-P

7/11/2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

the reason i don't give terrorists/freedomfighters the right to choose their own complete designation is because they're freaking terrorists!

There you go. But rules? Difficult.

I recall an interesting Michael Kinsley column from several years back in which he commented on the AP's decisions to refer to the 9/11 hijackers not as terrorists

I recall this one (scroll down to the Sli-Of-The-Tongue Award).

And right, I forgot to mention that a British Asian is an American Indian. Er, no, not an American Indian, I mean, er. Not First Nation, I mean. Which wouldn't make sense in France, because both Indians and Indians would be considered part of the same Grande Nation.

7/12/2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Balabusta in Blue Jeans said...

The mother of one of my college friends was raised in the Midwest with the firm belief that the polite term was "Hebrew". To this day, she often prefers it, still vaguely feeling that "Jewish" is derogatory, despite the attempts of a college roommate from Brooklyn who tried hard to convince her otherwise.

There's an author, I believe Barbara Kingsolver, who talks about travelling in West Africa and discovering that the local custom, if you don't know an individual's name, is to greet them by the name of their tribe. "Thank you, Ibo", rather than "Thank you, mister." The author found that everyone addressed her by the local word for 'white person', which slightly offended her until she got used to it. An African friend asked what she would call an African whose name she didn't know if she met him in New York, and she was able to assure him that she would not say, "Hey there, black man!"

There is no single standard of politeness, but polite people try to be as aware of as many nuances as possible, and make good choices. Yes, it's kind of funny how complicated finding an all-purpose word for 'American person of African ancestry' is. But think how insane people got about the girls who wore flip-flops to meet the president. Flip-flops are just a kind of shoe. Why the problem? Several words no longer used in polite society just mean 'black'. But manners are in the nuances, the subtleties and the details.

7/13/2006 2:31 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

I've been called a Hebrew before. I was taking advanced Hebrew language courses in college, and I'm sitting in the hallway waiting for the class to end, and I happen to chat with this young woman also sitting there (an African-American who I assume comes from around here, Baltimore, though this university has students from all over). When I explain that I'm waiting for a Hebrew class, she remarks, "But why do you need to take Hebrew, if you're a Hebrew?" Though I'm a little taken aback by her calling me a Hebrew, I can't help noticing that she has a point (i.e. why should I, a Jew, not be fluent in the Hebrew language?). To be called a Hebrew isn't so much offensive as that you wonder about what sorts of other attitudes such a person may hold about you. I don't think the woman was "anti-Semitic," and I've had far more hurtful experiences (I've been all over the U.S.), but her terminology suggested a level of ignorance that is disconcerting in its own right.

But manners are in the nuances, the subtleties and the details.

Yes, and the thing we have to realize is that word meaning is relative, not absolute. Take the term shvartza. My parents always told me not to use the term, and the rabbi of my synagogue also told his congregants not to use it. But it is still in pretty common use among Orthodox Jews, and among some older non-Orthodox folks. If you object to it, they'll tell you that it's "just" the Yiddish word for black. And they're right. Though I'm no Yiddishist myself, I understand that if you're speaking Yiddish, you use this word when referring to black people, because the language simply has no other (more respectable) term. And to be fair, not every English speaker who uses the term does so in an intentionally derogatory way. But in my experience is it is mostly used derisively, and the fact that Yiddish has no "better" term suggests to me that the strained relationship between blacks and Jews goes back a long way (contrary to the oft-heard claim by Jews that we were nice to the blacks until the blacks became jealous of our success and started hating us; I think both communities had a good deal of prejudice against each other from day one). To be sure, if you use a lot of Yiddish in your regular vocabulary, it seems almost natural to say shvartza, without any harmful intent. But it's almost as if the types of people who use this much Yiddish are also hanging on to some of the values that mainstream American society left behind decades ago. I suppose that today's remaining Yiddish speakers could come up with an equivalent to "African-American" (I have no idea if they have), but considering that Yiddish today is mostly in the hands of insular Hasidic communities, I have my doubts.

7/13/2006 2:06 PM  

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