Liberal rules of linguistic etiquette

Monday, January 5, 2009 | 12:01 p.m. CST; updated 1:11 p.m. CST, Monday, January 5, 2009

A few days ago my family took a break from holiday cheer to discuss whether it’s appropriate to refer to Asian people as “Oriental” after someone used the word in that context. I, with bleeding heart in tow, opposed the use.

I didn't acquire this aversion during my youth in Missouri (as exemplified by how much it discombobulates my parents). It was bred through conditioning after I left the Midwest to get the most liberal of college educations in New York City among all those cheese-eatin’, book-readin’ Yankees.

Though I studied a great variety of subjects during my four years at university, my professors reiterated the same three lessons in various forms in almost every class . I like to think of them as “The Humanities Musketeers”:  

One: Those ancient Greeks and Romans really knew what they were doing. Respect.

Two: Gambling man or no, in a fight between Nature and Man, you should put your money on Nature every time.

Three: Colonization wasn’t so much a good idea as a gradual cultural holocaust for which there can be no sufficient amount of regret or apologizing from the West. 

The “Oriental” embargo was a variation of the third lesson. The mantra goes like this: Rugs are Oriental — people are Asian. In other words, people, unlike objects, command more respect than that word can deliver (doubtless though the distinction enrages carpet suffragists).

The general reasoning behind the mantra, which I regurgitated to my parents with all the self-righteous gusto and Pavlovian mechanism of a graduate student, is that the word has condescending connotations bred by colonialism.

As western colonizers followed the British East India Company to lay claim to areas in Asia, the word “Oriental” was used to refer to the Far East. The idea is that the Orient was defined as such by virtue of not being the Occident, because occidental Europe said so. The term came to suggest inferior otherness by slopping together anything that wasn’t European, anything that was exotic and rife with lands and people that could be exploited by a politically dominant West.

This logic was popularized by many post-colonial theorists, most notably Edward Said, author of the 1978 work “Orientalism,” a book that was a favorite amongst my professors but was not on my parents’ reading lists for the good reason that it didn't exist when they were in school.

The very idea of "post-colonialism" carries no significance for them. The side they presented to me in our discussion was that if they don’t use the word with those oppressive colonial undertones in mind, and if those undertones are not widespread enough for them to even know about them, then their use of the word shouldn’t be construed as offensive or inappropriate.

Before my four years of humanities catechizing, I would have agreed. I remember using, as many teenagers still do, the word “gay” as a blanket pejorative during high school. I had a friend who always told me I shouldn’t because it was culturally ignorant and insulting, but that didn’t make me eager to reform.

At the time, I resented her for being so high and mighty about the words other people should be using. But gradually I came around to her way of thinking, and I eventually found myself repeating her very words to the teenage boys I taught when I worked at a high school. What I hadn't understood at first is that choosing to spout the liberal rules of linguistic etiquette can be as useful as obnoxious.

There's no fighting it: If you choose to tell people not to use words like “Oriental” or “gay” because they might be offensive in certain contexts, you are going to sound like a self-satisfied prig. But if the person you’re subjecting to your moralism manages to get past that and consider the nugget of truth, then feelings might be spared on down the line, which is worth your looking, and perhaps being, a bit unlikeable.

My parents won’t ever put much stock in the Humanities Musketeers, and perhaps there’s no good reason why they should. But the bottom line in the type of discussion we had is this: There are tens of thousands of words in the English language, and there’s certainly no good reason to risk offending someone by using one that could be misinterpreted when another word could do the job risk-free, whether or not you buy into the reasons why.   

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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