Much ado about words


…the characteristics of our age is the growth of this culture of offendedness.

– Salman Rushdie

Untouchable, Black, Spic, Woman, Illegal immigrant

Are words really that important? Does it make a difference whether you call a person black or African-American? Recently I had a conversation with a lady who took offense to my use of the term “my womanly side”. She felt I was categorizing certain feelings as womanly or as feelings that only women felt.

This conversation made me ask two questions. One, what is wrong with categorizing something as long as we do not discriminate based on that categorization? Two, are we missing the woods for the trees here by wanting everything to be neutral?

Let’s take each one separately.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room first and get it out of the way. All humans are not made equal. There are groups of people, due to various circumstances, who are better are some things than others. That does not in any way preclude individuals in the group from excelling in other areas or doing badly in areas where the rest of the group excels. Neither does this mean that a person from another group cannot excel in the area in which the people of this group excel. Let us take long distance running as an example. Here is an interesting statistic – In 2011, 17 American men had run the marathon in under 2:10. 32 men from a tribe in Kenya – Kalenjin – ran it in 2011 alone. There are loads of reasons why the Kalenjin make good long distance runners that run the whole gamut – diet, altitude, socioeconomics, body structure and genetics.

In the same way, women are different from men not just in body make up but in the way they perceive the world around them. There is really something called womanly feelings. However, since we belong to the same species, there is nothing stopping from a woman being more man-like or for a man to be more woman-like. The important thing to absorb here is that it is okay and in no way lesser to have characteristics of the other sex – to be in touch with your other side. One does not become more or less of a man or a woman by having characteristics of the other.

Then there is the point about semantics. Humankind is a talkative species. We need to talk, explain, and share our ideas. From the first cave paintings, to tomes running to hundreds of pages, to blogs on the Internet – we are constantly looking for ways to tell people what we feel, where we stand on a topic and, yes, what pisses us off. Words per se do not make something wrong or right, unless the word itself is derogatory. For example, the word “untouchable” is derogatory, irrespective of its usage, when it comes to identifying a person or people. In such cases, it makes sense to change the word and look for an alternate word to describe the same group. However, irrespective of the word used, the people are still being categorized. The change of word only allows the changes to come possible. So, Mahatma Gandhi’s term of “harijan” for the same group aimed to take away the stigma that a descriptor such as “untouchable” carries with it.

Gandhi was a great leader of people. Most of his actions were taken after careful deliberation. He would think things through and expend his energies on things that were important or made the changes he wanted to make possible. The same cannot be said of many such renamings that have happened since.

For example, recently the term “illegal immigrants” has come to be banned by the ASP stylebook. An illegal immigrant is somebody who entered the country through illegal means. You can call this person a queen and yet it would not change the fact that the person was in the country illegally. Such movements only serve to distract from the real issues. The same can be said of the way state governments in India are falling over themselves to Indianize the names of states, cities and towns. The freedom struggle is over. In fact it has been over for well over 60 years. Renaming a city does not in any way make the residents feel any more or less patriotic. All it does it run up a huge bill for the exchequer without improving the lives of the people in any way.

Neither calling “illegal immigrants” as “people who came into the country illegally” or by calling someone “African-American” instead of “black” in any way enable changes. They are simply a lot of noise that obfuscates the real issues at hand.

At the end of it all, when you cut out all the bullshit, it’s about understanding and caring for your neighbor. There are a lot of inequalities around us. Humankind is a bag of contradictions. Our power to love is only equaled by our power to hate. We are extremely clannish and look on outsiders with suspicion. The more successful our clan is, the more we try to exclude people from the clan so that we can reap the maximum benefits of our success.

There have always been warriors amongst us who have fought long and arduous battles against inequalities. They have stood up against the tide of popular sentiment and shouted into the breeze. They have continued shouting until the breeze died down and their voices could be heard clearly.

I feel the way forward is not by denying the differences but by embracing them.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Sri says:

    You do not mice your words! Very clear and cutting opinion, good food for thought.

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