Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Brown Bag of Pain

This month's CLF mailer included a sermon that included a story about a moment from Starr King life a few years ago, when, apparently, there was a decree that lunch meetings would be called BYOL rather than Brown Bag. Exactly who had decided that and who was effected by the decree is not clear in the story, and bloggers have been taking the issue to town with various assumptions and diatribes about PC language. (And most of us have learned a painful bit of history; that once upon a time, in the Black community of New Orleans, some people judged how "black" people were by reference to the common paper bag. Just another little bit of evidence for original, or at least ubiquitous sin, but that's another issue) But it does bring up the question of Politically Correct Language.

I am both a big fan of the power of language and suspicious of PC language campaigns. There are times when language hurts. Calling grown women "girls" and grown black men "boys" takes a chunk out of their dignity and gives not-so-subtle permission to society to treat these people, well, as less than full adults.

Where I get off the PC language train is the demand that since certain words have meanings which cause some people pain, "good" people don't use them. Such as, "The 'brown bag' reference is so painful to me because of the history of my people, that you can't use that word around me without doing me damage."

Now, this is not a completely bad argument. I imagine that most of us don't use the word, "niggardly" in spite of the fact that it has nothing to do with the extremely painful word it sounds like, because...well, that what it sounds like and the pain to all who hear is real. There's enough pain in the world, who wants to cause more when "stingy" will do just fine?

If that's one end of the PCLanguage argument spectrum, the other end veers quickly into something not very healthy, which is, "I've discovered this obscure reference to badness and I'm going to pretend to feel hurt by it so that I can test how willing the people around me are to cater to my pretend hurt. " That end of the spectrum is a hypersensitivity and a demand to extra consideration because of one's status as a victim. Not only is it unhealthy behavior for individuals and communities, it actually causes hurt, because it tests persons "goodness" by reference to a fake test, which is whether they are willing to alter their behavior because of what turns out to be an arbitrary demand for consideration. And that is why PC language riles people up so much. Most people like to be thought of as "good" without reference to arbitrary tests, just like they like to think of their skin color as acceptable without reference to paper bags.

I don't know what happened at Starr King over brown bags. It may be that the community contained someone who had been repeatedly tested for full humanity against the color of a brown bag. If I had a classmate or professor who had experienced that horror, I'd start talking about byolunch in a heartbeat. That's real pain to a present person and life is fraught enough already to be causing more. From the telling of the story, however, it sounds like this was more like, "This bad thing happened a long time ago and a long way away and someone here has decided to feel hurt by it and so everybody has to conform themselves to that hurt or they are being insensitive, racist, bad persons." That's actually too sad to be called silly. That's an unhealthy community. That's fake hurt masquerading as vicitmhood and nobody willing to say that this emperor has no clothes.

The good news is that the point of this benighted story in the original sermon was that someone DID ask what the point of the language change was so that the issue could be discussed. Yeah, Starr King! Discussion is where PC language becomes "this is my hurt, can you honor it?" and "now that you explain this to me, I'll never see lunch bags in the same way again," or "you know, I don't see that this really is causing you pain and I don't like this game of "gotcha!" that you seem to be proposing." Or something in the middle and a community that has listened, learned, and weighed, in a rational way, their choices of words.


Lizard Eater said...

Great, thoughtful post ... without a bit of snarkiness, which I couldn't avoid. :)

And you hit on a point that I had felt, but not put my finger on, in my own mind: I don't like it when pc language becomes a shibboleth, because at that point, what is supposed to be about inclusion, becomes an instrument for exclusion. Thus defeating the whole purpose.

Anonymous said...

Just a picky point, "niggerdly" is actually spelled "niggArdly" which would go a ways towards dispelling illegitimate linguistic associations.

Aside from that, I do think that the fact that someone asked about the change (in the vignette given) is good. But there ought to have been a further step--the ability to challenge it. If "brown bag lunch" has no racial overtones in its history, although "brown bag test" may, then why the language ban?

While language is important, I think there are other, subtler ways that racism manifests itself and this kind of hypersensitivity winds up backfiring and making true discussion next to impossible.

Ellis said...

Thank you for the lack of snark.

I’ve commented on this topic here.

Anonymous said...

I agree that "brown bag lunch" and "brown bag test" are not the same. It seems like banning the word "cock" when you are talking about chickens because in other circumstances it has other uses (or think of "bitch" to a dog breeder.)