Friday, April 26, 2013

W -- Word Worries

These days it seems that we need to exercise increasing vigilance in the word choices we make. Certain words and phrases seem to have taken on offensive meanings as though they have taken on a life of their own and purposely vilified their own meanings. I am here today to argue that this has become an out-of-control and ridiculous trend.

Let me start by acknowledging that there ARE words, terms, and phrases that are offensive and should not be used. The exception to this would be the creation of a character who embodies offensive characteristics. Even then I would advise caution in how this is presented.

The recent debacle with Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) and his statement about "wetbacks" falls into this category of terms. Referring to illegal Mexican immigrants with this term IS offensive. This is because the term was born out of bigotry and meant to demean. It grew to be meant to demean anyone of Hispanic descent. This covers most racial and ethnic words that are intended as slurs.

There is a gray area for me when it comes to choosing between "Indian" and "Native American," and "Black" and "African American."

I have consciously chosen to go with the term Native American to refer to the indigenous populations of the United States and Canada even though it is a term created by the white man to re-frame any negative connotations surrounding Indian. I have chosen this even though the Native Americans themselves are not bothered by being called Indians. It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, or any bow to political correctness. I have made this choice because there is this little, insignificant country (note sarcasm here) called India whose inhabitants are also called Indians and owned the right to the word first. I was also starting to feel like a complete idiot having to clarify by saying "India Indians" whenever I had a conversation that included this particular demographic.

Likewise, I have chosen to stick with Black rather than African American unless there is a specific need to imply African origins in what I am saying or writing. While all African Americans are Black, not all Black people are African Americans. Huh? People from islands in the Caribbean do not consider themselves African, so I defer to their wisdom. I have also heard Whoopie Goldberg speaking about her belief that she is an American, not an African American. I agree with her wholeheartedly. After all people don't walk around calling me a Scandinavian American. Since I describe my characters rather than label them when I write, this is rarely an issue. In speaking I don't usually differentiate people other than male or female, unless the conversation is specifically about race.

Political correctness has gone wild in this country. There are too many people out there too willing to be offended. It is like they are purposely working on being offended. I believe that many of the words and terms that they are being offended by are completely benign.

These additional negative nuances of meaning are in the mind of the listener. While it can be communicated with certain inflection or attitude to back up that impression, the word itself is harmless.

For me disabled people are still disabled. It is such a broad and general term that it refers to no failing on the part of the individual. It is a generalization, not a slur. This does mean that a great number of people can be clumped facelessly together. The real problem is attaching negative meaning to the word (like handicapped). We then change to a different word (disabled) to alleviate this negative connotation only to have the new word take on the negative as well. Now people are proposing calling these individuals differently-abled. The problem is not the word it is the attitude and THAT is where the true change must be made.

Likewise, the term retarded became contaminated by rude individuals to take the term and use it to insult anyone they considered to be of lesser intelligence. This was added to through the speaking the term with anger and derision. So now we use mentally handicapped or mentally challenged.

As a culture we have found some humor in this phenomenon. It has led to such jokes as short people really being vertically challenged, or people baldness or thinning hair being "follically" challenged. 

To be fair, I will turn this particular microscope on myself.

I am fat. No varnish. I have survived decades of people like me trying to skirt the issue with chubby, plump, big-boned, and other such terms to avoid being called fat and flabby. The point is that IT IS fat. The problem is that many people add a value judgement to the word that those of us who are horizontally challenged are somehow worthless and compromised beings with no redeeming qualities. We all really know that this is not true. We are intelligent, stupid, talented, ordinary, extraordinary, funny, boring, loving, hateful -- we are just like anyone else, we just happen to be fat too.

To be honest, thanks to comedian Gabriel Iglesias, I now consider myself "fluffy." The man himself his unapologetically fat and as a part of his wonderful comedy he has defined the "Six Levels of Fatness." These are Big, Healthy, Husky, Fluffy, Damn! and Oh, Hell No!

So now I consider myself fluffy. Not just fat, but a specific level of fatness. And this level is imbued with humor. I don't use this as an excuse to just give up and eat. I would love to get down to husky and work hard to stay away from damn! I am just accepting this fact about myself without allowing it to injure my self-esteem. This fact is not a personal failure. It just is.

After all, fat is just a word. Anything more is what you bring to it.

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