Sunday, September 16, 2012

PC language and taking offense שפה תקנית ופגיעה

When I see an article criticizing political correctness, I anticipate reading defensive bunk claiming that words are just words, so why can’t everyone just calm down? worthy of Archie Bunker. This piece by Amaliah Rosenblum is an exception.

While Rosenblum concedes that language does shape our realities, she initially argues, “If I choose to refer to my husband as ‘my partner,’ in so doing, I am not improving my status in the eyes of the law and the Rabbinate.” Um, yes you are. Not in each individual instance of uttering the words “my partner” when referring to your spouse, but in the “critical mass” that slowly forms, which is comprised of each instance of its use by each one of us. Every time you useבן זוגי ben zugì [“my partner” in Hebrew] or ishì [“my man”], it validates my using it. Every time I use it, it lowers the inhibitions of some other woman who chokes on it. I assert that the more it’s used, heard, uttered, written, and read, the less we’ll all choke and the more ordinary it will become, until hopefully it ultimately replaces ba’alì [literally “my master”]. This is the trajectory of all PC language.

Rosenblum states, “Sticking to the embellished term ‘my partner’ is likely to serve my desire to repress the major problems with the institution of marriage in Israel while weakening my ability to oppose it.” Huh? How so? And why is the term embellished? Did she mean “pretentious”, perhaps? What could be more down-to-earth than the simple and direct “my partner”? As opposed to, say referring to handicapped individuals as “differently abled” [ducking]?

Yet it is in Rosenblum’s final paragraph that we reach her quite intelligent distillation of democracy: “The price of living in a democracy is that all kinds of idiots with poor taste have the right to say repulsive things about us. That's part of the deal.” This was exactly the argument put forward by Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose when criticized for commissioning a series of cartoons of Muhammad that “offended” Muslims. How much weight are we required to give to that “offense”, as opposed to that caused by downright incitement, a la Beitar fans’ chants of “Death to the Arabs”? Or to the “offense” “felt by” the ultra-Orthodox at the sight of Naama Margolese walking to school, all her proto-sexual parts (and more) duly covered? I believe the answer lies in something my friend Rabbi Susan Silverman once said to me, which she lives by: “You can choose to be offended. Or not to be.”

I beg to expand thereupon: We can react to offense in one of three ways: 1) Let it go; 2) Protest vigorously, yet non-violently; 3) Blow up the embassies of the countries from whence the offense emanated. Which response will garner more sympathy? Which will move humankind forward? This excellent piece by Fouad Ajami addresses precisely these issues.

Do I believe the offense taken by the African-American community over the slaying of Trayvon Martin is a mis-reaction? I do. But to their credit, they organized Hundred Hoodie Marches in protest; they didn’t blow up buses. Ditto for the members of the CHaBaD community who protested the guilty verdict in the Aharon Rubashkin case: While I vehemently disagree with their offense thereat and their claims of anti-Semitism, at least they didn’t rampage through Brooklyn overturning dumpsters or spitting on “immodestly dressed” women.

So I suppose you could say that my New Year’s wish is to see more Hundred Hoodie Marches and fewer (ideally no) bombings. Doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

1 comment:

  1. Not to much to ask at all! yam, you are always a ary of light for me. I would add that the idea of "offense", to me, is not just a choice or whether or not to be offended. It's that "being offended" (In quotes because i want to suggest it as something at play in human dynamics) is a political ,one, not an emotional description. Emotional descriptions sound like this: I'm hurt, sad, angry, afraid, happy, relieved..... I'm offended is saying: because of what you did/said/didn't say/didn't do, I am now in a position of power in this relationship. I just don't think it's a way to engage with the other. It's a way to "win".

    Shana tova and keep shining your light!!!