Friday, March 14, 2008

To Adam


I entered this conversation late, and so I decided that it needed it's separate post...And I threw in a picture to make it more entertaining.

I understand that you feel a great passion for the English language and all of its abilities, as well as acknowledge your urge to keep it pure and untainted by the feminist minority. The English language has been around for quite a long time, and it has, as mentioned in other posts, changed, and changed, and changed, through a process of linguistic evolution, if you will. The words that we use now in our correspondences, our explanations—our descriptions of everything—are completely different than what would have been used hundreds of years ago.

Language is ever morphing into something different than it was before. And usually the change is forced. Especially if commonly used words are realized to be offensive. Think of only a few decades ago. Our country had a whole slew of accepted yet incredibly offensive words for every single minority that “invaded” our soil. I use the word “invaded,” because with slang words like “chink,” “nigger,” and “spic,” it is pretty obvious that the diversity was not welcome.

There were publicly correct terms for the immigrants that came from their respective countries, but many people continued to refer to them using disrespectful slang. And it wasn’t because of a loss for words, or laziness, I would argue. It was because the majority of people in this country had their feet plunged so deeply and securely in the mud of tradition, and they weren’t going to budge. They did not want change—as people in power usually don’t. If they accepted the change, they would have to accept the fact that their traditional life would end. Disrespectful slang is the byproduct of that unhappiness, and it shows an unwillingness to change and progress forward. To change the language and begin using “PC” terms would be to accept that change was happening, and it was there to stay. And it would also give respect to the people that they so deeply despised at that time, and ultimately didn’t want to give equality to.

I know that I have been speaking about racial issues and terms, but this is only an analogy for the term issue that has been the topic of this blog. This country’s tradition is so engrained in our language—which is why so many of us love it. Words in the English language are so beautiful and eloquent, but they are also powerful. Each word has years, decades and sometimes centuries of history behind them. Which is also why it is important to remember that in order for our society to progress forward, and let the unequal citizens rise up and become at the same level as the rest—we will have to let go of some words. And with that, let go of the idealistic traditions that go along with them.

Words are powerful, and with that power should come the knowledge and respect to not use certain words. It may be inconvenient to have to remember what term is “PC” at that time—but I really don’t think that it is that difficult. The common argument against “PC” terms can be turned around. They are just words, and in that aspect, it is easy not to use certain ones and instead replace them with words that people would prefer you to use. It is no sweat off your back, and you didn’t offend anyone. In fact, if you do know the right term, chances are you have been aware your local civil rights or feminist issues.

These are not petty little terms that should be taken lightly, and it is not an issue that should be dismissed or condescended. It is a real issue--because without words, how are our values and traditions expressed?

Now, to finish up this comment, which is already long (I apologize—only to be polite, though, because I had a lot of important things to say), I have two definitions that I would like to share.

The first word is one mentioned in another post:

Stewardess: It is defined as 1) a woman flight attendant, and 2) a woman who attends to the comfort of passengers on a ship, train, or bus.

Steward: It is defined as 1) a person who manages another's property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others, 2) a person who has charge of the household of another, buying or obtaining food, directing the servants, 3) an employee who has charge of the table, wine, servants, etc., in a club, restaurant, or the like, 4) a person who attends to the domestic concerns of persons on board a vessel, as in overseeing maids and waiters, 5) an employee on a ship, train, or bus who waits on and is responsible for the comfort of passengers, takes orders for or distributes food, 6) a flight attendant, 7) a person appointed by an organization or group to supervise the affairs of that group at certain functions, 8) U.S. Navy, a petty officer in charge of officer's quarters and mess.

Now, first I would like you to look at the most obvious visual difference between the two definitions: one is short, and the other long. But wait. There’s something wrong with that. According to your theory, male and female labels for the exact same position should also have the exact same definitions. The only difference should be that one says “male flight attendant” while the other says “female flight attendant.” Obviously, however, this is not true. Instead we find that the steward—the male version of the word—is incredibly long and detailed. The word has many more connotations than simply a “flight attendant” like the female version. It speaks of responsibility, management, financial affairs, property… Even our dictionaries acknowledge that there is a difference between the two so-called “gender-equal” positions.

Now, I won’t go back into what this means—I think that Derek and Mandi did a wonderful job of explaining why these words are not “PC” anymore, and why it is important to recognize and acknowledge the fact that they are not “PC” for a very good reason. I will, however, go back to my first point.

This country has been sexist and racist for years. It would be na├»ve of us to believe that the residue of such times hasn’t seeped into the language that we use today. It is important to, with every step forward in social justice and equality in all categories—gender, racial, sexual orientation—that we make sure that our language reflects and promotes the change that we have made. We must not hold onto the words that are attached to values and traditions we no longer hold.

Also, why criticize something if you cannot ever be sure that you truly understand the connotations. You most likely will never be a woman, and thus will never understand what these “petty” word differences really mean and to truly comprehend their negative implications. Even if you have criticisms of the “PC” movement (and it’s not just supported by the feminists!), on the off chance that it could help, wouldn’t you? If not, that unwillingness, along with the criticisms that you have for even the possibility that language may be an important factor in changing sexist attitudes today, leads me to believe that you may be critical of the feminist movement itself. Otherwise you wouldn’t be questioning this word game—you would be doing all that you could to change the injustices and the inequalities—even, and especially if it meant having to remember that it is “server.”

3 comments:

Derek said...

Thank you Katie that was very well put. I think the whole "loss of language" argument really is more of a reaction against "threatening" feminist ideals than a shift in cultural vocabulary focus. The romantic attachment to certain word choices is more of a red herring in my opinion(which is how I chose to interpret what Steve was initially saying: not worth arguing because its not the point).

Anonymous said...

We may simply be at an impasse. I just cannot accept as reasonable the underlying proposition of your argument: that a word like stewardess is offensive. I also think your flagrantly misguided terminological analogies diminish the actual evils once so pervasive in our society.

Taken in its totality, your argument is facially enticing; it has a "feel good" quality. But I cannot bite.

Mandi said...

Right. I'll keep that in mind the next time I see my mailman. She doesn't think anything needs to change either.