Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Language Is A Fluid Thing

Students at Chapman are campaigning to end the use of the word "retard" in everyday speech. There's also a campaign to stop using "gay" as a derogatory term (as in "That's so gay").

It's all fine and good to want to stop using mean-spirited language, but I think people need to understand that this is nothing more than a gesture. The word "retarded" may have a negative connotation now, but in the past, it was the enlightened word. Terms like "idiot" used to be commonplace, and "retarded" became the coin of the realm among people who wanted a gentler word to replace it.

This isn't the first time a similar shift has taken place. What does NAACP stand for? National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The only person who I've heard use the term "colored" in the last decade was my ninety year-old grandmother. Coming out of my mouth, it would sound either off-putting or downright rude. Same with Negro, although when the United Negro College Fund was founded, it was obviously not. Shift a little further eastward on the globe and you'll encounter the term "Oriental". Not really in vogue much any more is it? And yet, 50 years ago, college professors studying Asia and its cultures were "orientalists". Try calling a Middle-Eastern studies professor that today, and see what happens...

I could go on, but some of the terms that used to be in vogue for various groups are now so inappropriate that I really don't want to recount them here. The point is that you cannot ever ban all of the mean words, because new words will be appropriated and made mean. The meanness is in the people, not the language. Campaigns like this are, at best, misdirected.