Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Power of Words

The term "euphemism treadmill" is applied to once relevant terms that have since been outdated. It's been most notably applied to psychological terminology representing the mentally challenged. "Idiot" and "Moron" were once applied to the mentally challenged, then spent some time as pejorative terminology when they were replaced by "Mentally Retarded," which is now on the treadmill as it's been replaced by the more sympathetic "Mentally Challenged."

Cliches like "words have power" and "choose your words carefully" are true, but ironically many who embrace these statements ignore the words within. Context means so much more. Ask anyone who refers to the President as "Barrack Hussein Obama." It is in fact the President's name, but the context with which conservatives attribute the word means more than the letters that make up the very common name.

At the other end of of this passive pejorative is what has become the antithesis of political correctness. A world where we tiptoe around the most benign vernacular in an effort to be sympathetic, so much so that our sympathy becomes meaningless, and true respect is replaced at best with a fear of our own perceived prejudice, and a worst, pity.

Tiffany Green and Tim Hannah of Black Communities United, members of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, have taken offense to the word "master" in the city's various planning strategies. Obviously the organization is noting the term's use in slavery.

Commissioner Chairman Alan Greenberger took a more diplomatic approach to the notion, citing that "master" may falsely imply that each piece of the plan is in place.

The most deliciously ironic piece of the story (which would've have been news if PlanPhilly hadn't written about it) was from Commissioner Manny Citron. Citron said he had discussed abandoning the term when he was studying planning at Ohio State University. What degree was he working on? His Masters Degree.

The campaign to eradicate the word "master" from the planning process to quell those who claim offense is absurd, and this is just the last in a long line of attempts by the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze to throw a wrench in the real estate progress taking place in their burgeoning neighborhood. Green and Hannah are simply trying to complicate the process, to buy time before the inevitable.

But Green and Hannah made this absurd claim, so I'm going to jump headfirst down this Rabbit Hole and ask them what it would mean to add "master" to the list of words that dare not be spoken. 

Should Master Lock change its corporate brand name? How about the use of "Master Drives," "Slave Drives," and "abort" in software engineering? Should we rename Masterman High School the School for the Blindly Sympathetic? Of course not, we'd rename it the School for the Visually Impaired and Sympathetic. How about Master Street in Philadelphia or its namesake and his family who share the surname Master?

English is one of the most complex languages in the world. Thousands of words have multiple meanings. Homonyms like "dike" can raise an eyebrow or two. Cigarettes are occasionally referred to as "fags" by British visitors. Corn Hole is a popular game in the South. 

There are plenty of problems in this city, many in the neighborhood from which Green and Hannah hail. But refusing to acknowledge the context of simple words only points to one's own ignorance. But Green and Hannah aren't stupid and what they are doing is worse. They're using very real prejudice as a pawn in their own political maneuvering. By lumping the word "master" in with the vilest of monikers, they're making light of truly hateful words, words with a sole context rooted in bigotry. If this absurd argument were to realistically gain traction, it asks he truly awful bigots, "If you're willing to utter the offensive term, 'master,' why not utter the rest?"

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