03 April 2012

‘That nice Oriental lad’ or ‘A polite categorization’

My friend Mike told me a story about how his colleague described someone as ‘Oriental’. We laughed about the colleague’s barbarism until we realized it was hard to explain why ‘Asian’ would have been any better a choice of words.

There’s nothing innately offensive about either. As a term, ‘Oriental’ seems as bad as ‘Middle Eastern’: both are logically useless because they depend on a western perspective to make sense, but whereas ‘Oriental’ is now the thing that racist dinosaurs say, ‘Middle Eastern’ doesn’t seem to have undergone widespread stigmatization.

Still, ‘Oriental’ does seem rather more sweeping. It lumps a vast array of cultures together into the same vague concept we apply to decisions on rug purchases, and unlike ‘Middle Eastern’, there is no real consensus on the geography the term describes. But does geographical descriptiveness matter to the discussion?

‘Oriental’ is offensive because it lumps everyone together, not because it lacks geographical clarity. There is a long list of regional names with no single definition. Eastern Europe, the Deep South... So why is ‘Asian’ any better than ‘Oriental’? As Mike said, Korea is in Asia, but so is Kazakhstan.
The logic seems largely irrelevant, though. My reading of this phenomenon is that self-described mindful people keep up with the politically correct terms and haughtily shun out-of-date words without giving any real thought to the issues they’re passing judgement on.

This reminds me a lot of what Steven Pinker calls the ‘euphemism treadmill’. This is like how ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘cripple’ used to be neutral descriptors of medical conditions until prevailing negative connotations triggered the promulgation of new terms. This kind of semantic escalation is widely discussed in the literature and also, was a theme of George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (thanks, Wikipedia!).

Now consider that even technically correct and well circumscribed terms are liable to offend. Some Quebecers object to being called ‘Canadian’ despite being Canadian citizens, just as some in the UK object to the label ‘British’. These are some of the most objective terms that exist, and their ability to offend shows that vocabulary development is not a good strategy to demonstrate mindfulness.

Most people are fine with staying on the treadmill, keeping current on the ‘safe’ words to describe other people ‘politely’ and without sounding ignorant. But one wonders how meaningful that process is. Generally speaking, people in a majority interact most with other people in the majority. So using the in-style treadmill words is a kind of signal that says, ‘I’m with it’ to people who aren’t likely to have a personal stake in the usage of words that describe social subsets. In that sense, I think we get used to clinging to words we tell each other are safe, without considering the fact that it’s not up to anyone but the people or person described to decide how he, she or they want to identify. By the time Mary Majority interacts with Amy Asian, it may not occur to Mary that Amy could realistically object to that label. ‘Actually, I’m from Toronto...’

Keeping current on the intensely emotional and nuanced usage of words that describe personal or cultural identity is a daunting task. General semantic escalation only generates politeness; it does not produce concepts that are inherently less marginalizing or presumptuous than their forerunners. Still, mindful and sensitive people buy into that process to stay ‘safe’ without generally giving a lot of thought to the underlying issues. This process should be de-emphasized and supplemented, on an individual level, with a recognition that it is not anyone’s right to categorize anyone else, no matter how politely. I think there's something more to sensitivity than updating our labels...