Recently, the State Department’s Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson penned a column for their self-published “State Magazine” citing the importance of verbal sensitivity when using popular idioms. He cautions against phrases like “hold down the fort” and “Rule of thumb” as being offensive against Native Americans and women, respectively, because at the date and time they were conceived they originally held some type of a bigoted connotation.
“Holding down the fort” is obviously a reference to the colonial days when military outposts were subject to raiding at the hands of Native Americans. “Rule of thumb” supposedly refers to a passage in the bible inferring a standard by which a man can legally beat his wife. Or so we’ve been told. After all, we’ve all seen Boondock Saints, right? Not really…
It’s worth noting that the expression “Rule of thumb” is mentioned in neither the bible nor English Common Law as a unit of measurement regulating the size of a device with which a man can beat his wife. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson has an out for this as well; he goes on to point out that some things may present as “offensive” even if they aren’t. For example, he acknowledges that there is no clear-cut historical root of the word “handicap,” but since some disability advocates believe it’s a reference to homeless people holding their caps in their hands asking for a handout (I think “handout” might be offensive too but let’s stay on task), by referring to the disabled as “handicapped” you are actually calling them homeless. He goes back and forth between acknowledging that words and phrases in the English language change and adapt over time, taking on significantly different meanings, suggestions, and connotations, to simultaneously stating that we need to stop using them anyway, just in case.
In keeping with the spirit of this Orwellian regulation of our language, culture, and right to expression, I would like to share with you some words and phrases off the top of my head that are exceedingly offensive to my cultural heritage. I’m Scottish, Irish, German and Catholic. And I married into a Dutch family. For the record these don’t offend me, but you shouldn’t use them anyway, just in case I change my mind:
Double Dutch jump roping
Getting out of Dutch
Potatoes cooked Irish
Vandalism – especially calling people who commit Vandalism, Vandals. An East Germanic tribe known as the Vandals sacked Rome in the 5th Century. Let’s just be grateful they didn’t live long enough to see a crime named after them. Alas, 1500 years has done little to assuage my brittle feelings over this one.
Jerry-rigged (different from Jury rigged, though you should avoid it because they sound similar. (Same for Jerry-built/Jury-built.)
Scotch Tape – note that the Scotch line of products is in fact a brand name trademarked by 3M, anecdotally named by a customer who returned the predecessor of Scotch Tape for lack of adhesive stating, “Tell that Scotch manager he needs to put more glue in his tape.” Due to this hatemongering by 3M, recklessly and wantonly suggesting that the Scottish are stingy and cheap, I’m going to go ahead and say I’m offended by Post-It notes as well.
Hopscotch – has never actually been a slur, but it sounds like it could be one, and the action is similar to jump roping, so that’s off limits as well.
We’ve seen this kind of “thought policing” on stage quite a bit lately, especially after the recent Republican National Convention. Chris Matthews of MSNBC went “off the reservation,” stating the use of Chicago as an adjective (i.e. Chicago-style politics) is racist because, clever little devil, there are a lot of black people in Chicago. My personal favorite was Lawrence O’Donnell, who believed Mitch McConnell joking about Obama trying for a spot on the PGA tour wasn’t a jab at his constant golfing, but rather coded racism by “trying to align to Tiger Woods and surely, the – lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.” We all know that there are slurs and phrases that ARE generally considered offensive in American society and no sane person would ever argue to the contrary. However, when it is so extreme that we have to actively search for ways to avoid offending people, we have actually redefined the ways in which we can safely communicate effectively. As a culture, how are we to communicate through our social differences when we have a third party dictating to us rules (of thumb?) by which we can find common ground, forcing us to speak as if we’re navigating a minefield of invectives and hatefulness of which we aren’t even aware? The constant use of “We all know when the Republicans say (x) it’s code for (y)” vastly diminishes the ability of people with political differences to say what they mean and mean what they say. What if someone was to walk up to Mr. Robinson and ask him to refrain from using Scotch Tape in front of them; he’d look at them like they had three eyes. He fails to realize the hypocrisy of his own position.
What’s viciously ironic about this kind of mindset is it makes people NOT want to communicate with each other while at the same time limiting the ability of two people of different backgrounds to find common ground even when they try. This is becoming an increasingly shameful tactic of society, limiting what people can say, how they can say it, and thinking that it will somehow create a dialogue by which we can learn from each other. We all know an oft-repeated political mantra is “controlling the message.” I think the Progressive movement has done one better. By controlling what people say and how they say it they can regulate the message before it hits the airwaves.