Your Words Hurt Me

The article first appeared (in slightly different form) in Pajamas Media.

Much is being written at the moment about a list of no-no words circulated by an office of the Army. Compiled by someone with expertise in equal opportunity matters, the list purports to be 76 examples of words that simply should not be used in the workplace, as they are hurtful. The email, in fact, has an accompanying PowerPoint titled “WORDS HURT!”

While the majority of the words are ones that would — and should — get your children’s mouths washed out with soap, some are puzzling. “Colonial,” for instance, is on the list. Ditto “Canuck.” Many are chortling at the evident politically-correct overreach. The list evidently discourages workplace talk about Vancouver’s professional hockey team. Others are predictably angry.

Me, I am sad.

There are a number of words and phrases on the list that aren’t there because of a judgment call about what might offend (for instance, I can see why “girl” could be on the list, even if I do not agree). But other terms?

“Red-handed,” for example, is on the list. But, this term does not refer to Native Americans but instead dates to the 15th century. The first recorded usage of “red-handed” is in Scott’s Ivanhoe. The “red” refers to blood, not skin color.

“Blacklisted,” ironically, is also on the blacklist. Again, to those at home keeping score, this word has nothing to do with ethnicity. Ask the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, who would probably tell you that, while the idea of a blacklist may be offensive, the restriction against mentioning it is even more so.

But, my favorite one is this: “Sounds greek to me (sic).” Anyone who, like me, spent time in school trying to learn classical Greek will attest that the first hurdle one encounters is learning all those funny letters. Anyone not familiar with the Greek alphabet, when presented with Greek words will . . . well, they will find it all Greek to them. [UPDATE: I was reminded just recently that this term is from Shakeseare’s Julius Caesar. My mistake.]

In the late 1990’s, an aide to DC’s then-mayor, Anthony Williams, was forced to tender his resignation for using the word “niggardly” (a word with a Norwegian pedigree dating to the 14th century that means “miserly”) in a staff budget meeting. Some of those present felt uncomfortable by his word choice. He was hired back quickly, but the event left a sting and was an op-ed cause celebre for some weeks.

The obvious thread running between the Army’s PowerPoint and DC’s budget meeting would appear to be ignorance. If true, that’s certainly reason to be sad.

But, the person who compiled the Army list works in a professional capacity, in an office. He or she is, to use a term of currency, a “knowledge worker.” He or she is educated. The list surely has been vetted by more than one person. And, the staffer in question in DC in the 1990’s was similarly professional — that aide immediately clarified and defined the word he used. Even after, with the full definition of the word made plain, many columnists and commentators still held that using the word was inappropriate — because, rightly or wrongly, it was offensive.

Ignorance was not the problem there. The former president of the National Bar Association asked at the time, “Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?” New America Foundation fellow Debra Dickerson wrote that “on the streets and in the living rooms of Washington, [the issue has] been taken quite seriously. It matters here that anyone . . . involved in D.C. politics and putatively well-intentioned toward blacks . . . would use an obscure word that incorporates the hated slur, rather than one of its many synonyms.”

I have to believe that there is a similar logic at work with the Army PowerPoint. Why offend, goes that logic, when just by ignoring a small list of words you can avoid it?

Here’s what I find sad about this. The very fact of the no-no list highlights how little distance we have come since the 1990’s DC budget meeting, just as that event showed how little progress we had made since the decade before. The strides since the Civil Rights Era have slowed considerably. Now, allow the idea of “race” to enter the room, and dialog is shut down by immediate suspicion. In this environment, there is no such thing as an innocent remark, nor is there such thing as a valid grievance. Just recriminations, one to the other.

This nation is long past overdue for some straight talk about race relations, citizen to citizen. Yes there are past hurts to be righted. Yes there is institutional racism to be attacked. Yes, some people are oversensitive. But whenever the subject comes up, battle lines get drawn and no further headway can be made.

It would be nice if I could say “It’s all Greek to me” or if I could catch a crook “red-handed” without being told that I was perpetuating unfair stereotypes.

In a recent meeting I attended to discuss this subject, one colleague refreshingly turned to me, a white male, and said, “I know that, over the course of this discussion, you will offend me. But that is what we need to address so we can move forward.” She did not mean we should shy away from the topic; but that we should address it.

Meanwhile, sometimes it feels, paradoxically, as if it is the very care with which we approach the issue that holds us back the most from making progress.

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