Highly Political, and Wholly Incorrect
Once again political correctness is getting out of hand. The Seattle city council is apparently considering two terms be banned from all official communication. And what are these horrible terms? “Citizen” and “brown bag”.
The word “citizen” is offensive because, according the Office of Civil Rights, there are people who are served by the City of Seattle that are not technically citizens. People such as resident aliens who are working in Seattle. I can’t imagine these people are actually offended by this semantic distinction, but I guess the Office of Civil Rights is really afraid of these people getting their feelings hurt. Every time I visit Seattle and drive the streets, I am being served by the City of Seattle. And it doesn’t bother me that I am not called a “citizen” of that city.
As for “brown bag”, this is considered out of bounds because of a historical practice of excluding attendees of social functions if their skin was darker than a brown paper bag you might get at a grocery store. It took a some real digging, but I did find corroboration of this. The information I found, however, actually related to an old practice among African Americans applied to each other, rather than Caucasian people excluding people with darker skin.
Thing is, it did take a lot of looking. In other words, the vast majority of people most likely were not even aware of this. As often as the phrase “brown bag” is used in business circles, referring to an informal structured gathering during lunch time to disseminate information or discuss an issue, how come this was not brought to the public attention before? Maybe because the practice is so long out of use and forgotten by nearly everyone. I think it is important to keep tabs on history to make sure we don’t repeat bad behaviors, but I think this practice has gone away so long ago and would not be revived in today’s society. All this is doing is ripping open long healed wounds. Maybe the Office of Civil Rights in Seattle is afraid of going under the budget ax so they are trying to find something, however ridiculous it may be, to justify their existence.
This hubbub over harmless words reminds me of a piece I read about 20 years ago entitled The Bill of No Rights by Lewis Napper. Specifically, this sounds like the second “article” of this manifesto:
“…ARTICLE II: You do not have the right to never be offended. This country is based on freedom, and that means freedom for everyone—not just you! You may leave the room, turn the channel, express a different opinion, etc., but the world is full of idiots, and probably always will be…”
Now I will grant there are some terms and phrases that are grossly offensive to large groups of people and have no place in our modern discourse. Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper certainly found this out. His backward trash talking and racial slurring are pretty much universally accepted as wrong, if not just plain stupid. But if we start digging through obscure references in history that just about every person has forgotten just to find more words or phrases we shouldn’t say, pretty soon we will not be able to talk to each other at all. So much of our language could offend someone that we won’t be able to use any of it.
At issue really is the matter of context. Who would conjure up the image of someone standing at a door to a meeting room holding a grocery bag up to those trying to enter, comparing how dark their skin is, when someone calls for a “brown bag lunch” in today’s world?
Another phrase with an obscure history is “the rule of thumb”. Pretty much everybody thinks of this statement as an innocuous saying referring to some kind of general rule. What many of you may not know is that phrase originated from a law that said a man could not beat his wife with a stick larger than his thumb if she was getting out of line. Pretty horrific. But how many of you think of a man beating his wife when you use that phrase? How many women are offended by the phrase due to it’s reference to past abuses against women?
In Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 , the main character is a “fireman” in a dystopian future where all books are illegal, and his job is to burn ANY books that are found. This is done because certain groups and minorities might be offended by those books. In the story, banning books began a few at a time, only those which were very offensive, but over time all books were banned, and burned, for fear of what others might think. Religious groups, people of a certain ethnic backgrounds, gender groups, all these are sought to be protected from emotional harm by the laws of the land. So all books are outlawed and any information is disseminated through holograph producing video screens that are regulated by the government.
Many groups have tried to ban books for spurious reasons. The Harry Potter series, which got a whole lot of kids excited about reading, was decried and attempted to be banned by a lot of religious groups because they thought it glorified satanic magic practices. How could they have thought that children expanding their minds through reading a story was a bad thing? I guess these groups only want uneducated, unthinking members. Perhaps that is why a lot of religious groups refer themselves as “flocks”, because they prefer to be mindless sheep. For the record, I consider myself a Christian so I am not trying to bash all who also consider themselves among that group. Just the fringe fundamentalists who like to justify bad behavior as a means to an end in the name of Christ.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was banned by Muslim authorities because they saw it as a mockery of their beliefs. I remember reading that book because I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I did not see anything defaming Islam, but I did see a book I never would have read without the publicity, because frankly I thought it was pretty awful. So by calling attention, those offended made the author a multi-millionaire. Kinda backfired on them, I guess.
One of the most frequent books embroiled in this debate is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Its redundant use of a racial epithet historically directed at African Americans is why many want this book banned. I think the historical picture it presents is extremely important specifically because of the verbiage. Mark Twain wrote this novel after African Americans were freed from slavery but were still nowhere close to equal. The character in the book who is at the receiving end of these slurs ends up being the most noble person in the story, even more than the “hero”, Huckleberry Finn. By doing that, Twain showed how ridiculous the mistreatment of African Americans was in his time. It is a lesson that continues to resonate today, as there is still a disparity between treatments of Caucasians versus others. Banning this book would only detract from what we could learn.
I am also reminded of George Carlin in this. He once said, ““There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions, and wooooords.” Basically, a word itself has no power until someone gives it that power. Unless someone chooses a word to mean something, whether they say it, write it, hear it, or read it, the word is just a collection of sounds or letters on a page. Again, there are words we as society have ruled inappropriate, but by the very act of doing that we give these loathsome words power that by themselves did not exist.
I guess that is what is really bothering me. All these various groups or individuals feed fuel to something that disturbs them, making it bigger than it really is, and keeping it alive long after it should have died. If we would quit policing every little possibility of someone MAYBE being offended by something long since insignificant, a lot of these very offensive things would just wither away and die. Our modern society has some things that are understood by all to be out of bounds. When people cross those bounds, they are quickly brought to task by the public, as in the case of Riley Cooper. We do require our government to tell us what is offensive and what is not.
So how about we stop looking for or creating trouble where there just isn’t any?