I have perhaps told the story here before of the Fullbright professor who got the unenviable task of teaching my American lit class in the third year of college. My degree being languages, and the curriculum being more rigid than at any American college, (i.e. we all took the same classes and I rubbed elbows only with people with the same (or similar) major and minor), we were all twenty-something year old women, about 25 of us.
Other than a brief issue when we could not, for love or money, decipher his pronouncing of “Poem” (It sounded like poym) and he thought we had never heard of poetry and was baffled, the class proceeded with no issues. Most of us had taken American Lit at high school level, so this was territory, just a little deeper and taught by a real American (TM).
Until in the middle of a lecture he said something like “When any writer sets out to do x, he–” And stopped, growing pale, and started apologizing profusely.
Apparently looking on that sea of female faces, he thought he was about to be crucified. When we got it through his head that we were not offended, he said “Oh, wow. American women would be. I’d have to say he or she.” We, students of linguistics, pointed out that “he” is the appropriate pronoun for indeterminate gender in ANY INDO EUROPEAN LANGUAGE.
His answer was something like, “yeah, but–”
Yesterday I was reading a book for an upcoming project, called Lewis and Clark and the Indians. It is a research book, written in the sixties, which tries to bring the native tribes they encountered more to the forefront. I was/am very interested, because in this alternate history I need greater native magic/native personalities than in our world.
This morning I woke up starting at the cover and thinking “you could not get that published as a new book now. Because the word ‘indians’ would be enough to set off choirs of howling on how biggoted you were.
I myself prefer Amerindian, the word used in our anthropology class in college.
Yes, I do understand the point that the inhabitants of the Americas were not “indians” and that the name was a mistake Columbus made due half to wishful thinking. But look here, you think they are the only people in the world thus misnamed? It seems like being named something else by a tribe that has a bigger megaphone is the destiny of humans. In Portugal Germans are called “Alemoes” which is after the Alemani, who were only one tribe of the Germans. Oh, and in English (which straddles the world) they’re Germans, when for their own name they prefer Deutsch. To add insult to injury, their little displaced religious tribe here gets called “Dutch” because no one understood Deutsch was German. Take Portugal, (please) it takes its entire name from Portus Calem, warm harbor, i.e. the harbor off the city of Porto. Such name covers Gallicians in the North, Lusitans in the South and heaven knows what in between. It’s not the “right and fair name.” It’s just a name, used by the culture that became dominant in that region.
There is in fact not a single name of a race or nationality that doesn’t suffer from this. And also, while “Indians” was an ethnographically ignorant name, there was NO name for all the tribes in the continent. They were Iroquois and Cheyenne, Aztecs and Pawnee. There was no name, because they didn’t consider themselves a single people.
And the name “Native American” is as ethnographically ignorant as “Indians.”As far as we can determine, waves of colonists have displaced each other on this continent since there have been humans in the world, and while some Native tribes might have blood from the original hominins (if any) evolved on this continent, it would be a vanishing small amount, and calling yourself “Native” because of that is sort of the equivalent of calling yourself “Neanderthal” because you have 2% of genes of that vanished species (or in this group 3 to 6%. Heaven knows why.)
Yes, sure, the legends of these people claim they were created here. Why this is given more credence than other people’s claims of being descended from a clay man and a clay woman is beyond me, except the inherent racism of treating anyone with the ability to tan as a child whose naive opinions cannot be disputed because it would hurt his/her feelings.
This post will doubtless cause the usual flurry of accusations of racism, because I dare prefer an outmoded word and mock the “politically correct” chosen word.
Which brings us to the profound unseriousness of “politically correct” discourse.
Our professor’s fear he would be called sexist because he used “he” to signify of indeterminate gender is a point in fact. While teaching in Portugal, he was always a gentleman (I suppose that’s sexist, because lady is, or something. Pfui) to all the women he taught. Unlike to some of the local teachers, no rumors of groping or patronizing attached to him. He treated us as adults and scholars, which we in fact were, but which we often were not treated as.
But that one word was supposed to turn him into a raging racist. Habits of mind, you say? Language erasing the existence of women, you way? Take a powder. If you grow up thinking of “he” unless applied in the particular as a genderless word, you don’t think it erases women, anymore than the now preferred (and grammatically grating “they” erases the individual.) You might as well say that, as habits of mind go, “he” being used as gender indeterminate erases the idea of male. It makes about as much sense. Possibly more.
Again, I repeat, this is the default in all indo-European cultures (I don’t know other languages so I can’t say) and yet those cultures in present era and recent era for that matter accord much higher status to females than most other cultures around the world. Which leads me to tell you that the presumption of evil from rolling “indeterminate gender” under “he” is a priori wrong. In fact, you could say — if you were an ethnographer from another culture — that the indeterminate “he” diminishes the masculinity of Western men and allows the sub-par female autonomy to flourish.
But the discussion never happens, because there is no discussion, or dissecting of the actual language. There is a lot of privileged college educated women who want to feel they’re doing something for all women without doing something serious, like lending aid to women escaping female circumcision, taking in girl babies abandoned throughout the world, or even lending aid at an abused women’s shelter.
Screaming at the use of “he” to mean “he/she” is easier, and gets you not only as much recognition, but the ability to shout down anyone you don’t want to hear no matter how important their points.
So it goes with race too. As far as I can tell that book I’m reading is very sympathetic to the “Indians” making them more human and their tribal culture far more fleshed out than the accounts of the expedition (bound by the prejudices of its time) did. But it uses “Indian” and in the title, at that, so half the people who preen themselves in fighting the injustice of centuries would take off after it as biased and never read it, or absorb the knowledge contained in it.
Then there’s the myriad names for “Black person living in the US.” Negro was the polite word when I was growing up, and “Black” must not be used because it was derogatory. Then Negro became derogatory and we were supposed to use “African American” a detestable term that robs them forever of full American integration and identity. These people might not have had ancestors in Africa for as long as my husband hasn’t had ancestors in Europe (mid-1600s) but they are called African-American as I am called Portuguese-American because I came here as an adult. In other words, they’re treated forever as if they just disembarked and their nationality were something to be earned by each of them. To add insult to injury, it is obvious in the “enlightened” minds of the left African-American means black, pure and simple. Hence the fact that people like Peter Grant, born and raised in Africa, aren’t African Americans. Hence the fact that these idiots on stilts roam the world calling Frenchmen (or Portuguese, or Italians) of darker skin “African Americans.”
My black friends call themselves black, and that’s fine with me. I don’t see why that’s any different than “white” or inherently more offensive. Neither is accurate, of course, but both are culturally rooted and there is no stigma attached to one or the other.
However we’ve reached the sad point in our culture that no matter how pure your intent, how intellectual your discourse, use the wrong word and you’ll get jumped and called names, just like my professor was afraid of being.
This is not only nonsense, which excludes by the way a majority of non-college educated and ESL people who come from cultures not similarly tainted by linguistic nonsense, but pernicious nonsense.
Using the “correct word” for the week has not fed a single mouth, helped a single woman, raised a single baby. It has done nothing but supposedly change our thinking. That it doesn’t do that, is proved by things like French African American applied to a person of dark skin who has never been to America. The same old categories are there under the new name, and if they were bad before, they’re just as bad now.
All it does is give a bunch of — mostly female — over-educated twits the ability to congratulate themselves on their great concern and care for the downtrodden. And also give them the ability to play “society ladies.”
That is their archetype, even to those who are male. They are the arbiters of fashion and good taste, prepared to shout down any parvenu who presumes to make himself heard in the councils of the well-heeled.
This blacklisting of words is a profoundly unserious trend of mind that destroys real thought and world wide debate.
It is, on the other hand, a highly effective way of keeping the discussion only to those who will kowtow and conform to the current fashion and never question the power of the grand poobahs.
This like all such systems, in its unseriousness and mendacity has the seeds of its own destruction. It can’t adapt, it can’t reason, and it certainly can’t survive outside very affluent times.
The future demands serious people. The Lords and Ladies of Vocabulary alteration need not apply.