Tuesday, July 21, 2009

the changing social value of words

I still remember—vividly—the first time I actually heard someone refer to someone else as colored. I was nineteen, and I think I was actually naïve enough to believe that no one actually used language like that, unless they were trying to draw attention to their language. Certainly no one I knew would use that language. But this was someone in my family, and it took me a few hours to formulate any response at all.

Tonight I'm doing some reading on speed reading, both the techniques and the psychology of. I found an article, "An Approach to Speed Reading," by Joe W. Andrews (The English Journal 41/7 [1952]: 352–6), that evoked a similar reaction. Actually, my response, on a visceral level, to the words quoted below was much more acute because I hadn't noticed that the article was published in 1952. It wasn't until after I read the following paragraph that I had to find some sort of explanation for this language. At any rate, this is what made my jaw go slack:
That is the essence of the drills, and my experience indicates that the crudest execution can hardly fail to accomplish the results intended, ignoring the problem of the retarded and maladjusted, who require the individualized work with which this article is not concerned.

I should stress that Joe Andrews, according to the article, was in 1952 somehow affiliated with Kent State University (his title and qualifications are not listed), so his language must have been, it seems to me, within the bounds of appropriate professional usage at the time. And of course the tenor of this quote, on second glance, isn't the negative or condescending tone it would automatically be if such language were used today. Notice that, despite the conjunction of the terms problem, retarded, and maladjusted, Andrews is simply excluding a group or type of person from his focus and recommending them for "individualized work" rather than neglect, benign or otherwise.

When I recovered from my initial shock, though, I began to wonder: What language do we use today, as part of our professional practice, will seem backward and ill-informed fifty years from now? Will students in 2059 see Geza Vermes's book, Jesus the Jew, on the library shelf and snicker that the verboten word "Jew" was so boldly and unashamedly printed right on the spine? Will the now-standard formulations African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, or any of the other -Americans seem passé to our grandchildren? Neither of these seem likely to me, but it does seem likely that some of the language we currently find perfectly appropriate will pass out of favor.

So what? Well, I can't help but wonder how pointless much of our debates about terminology ultimately will be. Should we translate Ἰουδαῖος Jew or Judean? Did Mark write for Christians or Jesus followers? And so on. Don't get me wrong; we trade in language, and nothing subverts that trade like imprecision and the shoddy use of language. But formulations such as "non-Judean participants in the cult of Jesus," which may be more precise than the potentially misleading gentile Christian, are so unwieldy they distract from the discussion rather than contribute to it. I seem to remember, somewhere in the nether regions of my brain, that James Crossley had to defend his use of the label Christian, even though he is explicitly aware of and involved in examining the problems of projecting modern categories on ancient phenomena. I can't help but think that, perhaps, when we don't understand a person's argument it's easier for us to attack their language.


Don said...

I think it is important (not to seem maladjusted here) to take into account the fact that our culture has become one where it is growing more and more difficult to find words that do not offend someone's sensibilities. We have created a world where MY self-esteem is the arbiter of what is and isn't appropriate, and where I have an inalienable right not to have my 'feelings' hurt. You have a moral obligation not to offend me. Take for instance any emotional baggage off the word "retarded". What does it mean? In general it describes something that for one reason or another has not reached full development or potential. In regard to sanctification, every one of us is retarded to one degree or another. It is an apt description. But someone arbitrarily decides that the term is offensive and it becomes anathema. ("Colored" is probably irredeemable because of the underlying bias that I am without color myself.)

While language is indeed fluid, the stream is helped along by a culture that fails to offend--which is problematic when dealing with the skandalon we are charged to present.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Don. I think you're right—we not only value but even insist upon not being offended, and our thin skins aren't doing anyone any favors. I once had to write a very lengthy e-mail, which I entitled (cleverly, I might add) "the length of our toes." At the time, a lot of the people with whom I was working at a church, and whom I considered my friends, were squabbling amongst themselves because they were all offending each other. I pointed out that while some genuinely dumb things had been said and done, most of the problem stemmed from their willingness to be offended. But of course people will step on our toes when we let them get so long!

Maybe things would improve if we were more conscious of how were the subjects of offense rather than its objects.

My Visual Bookshelf