Tuesday, 26 April 2016


Queer. Poofter. Kike. Raghead. Boong. Wetback. This kind of word is legion - I could probably run through the entire alphabet with them with not much trouble. I won't, though. I think I've said enough already to make it clear that I am talking about the language of bigotry. It's ugly, it's hateful, and it's very, very dangerous. 

Tathagata Buddha said, 'with our thoughts, we make the world', and this is to a great extent true. Not as a spiritual metaphor, but as a concrete fact. 

Let's start with the fact that all these words are nouns. There's a reason for this. They are nouns because their function is always to label. With words like these, we label a person, and by doing so, we enable a certain kind of thinking about that person. And once we have enabled that kind of thinking, we are free to bring about Holocausts and Manus Islands. Because we're not talking about people. We're talking about kikes and ragheads.

The way this works is as follows: when we apply a noun to a being, we change the image of that being in our minds. It is the image of the being, not the being himself, that is an operand to the equations of our thinking. When we apply a noun, we are essentially assigning a certain value to x. The fact that it may be a false value makes no difference - it is a value, and by existing it can enable conclusions to be drawn which could not otherwise have been drawn. Surely, during Kristallnacht, no one said to himself, 'let's go and smash up the shops of all the tradesmen.' No, indeed. A more sinister noun had to be used to enable this kind of behaviour.

It is for this reason that labels are so very dangerous. They're powerful. More powerful than just about anything else in language. One of my textbooks when I was studying law recommended that one should never refer to one's client in a criminal matter as 'the accused'. You call him by his name. This takes the jury's focus off the crime and directs it towards the reality of your client as a human being. It's sound advice, and illustrates the quite subtle effects that labelling can bring about. Subtle, but very great, if it can make the difference between prison and freedom for your client.

There is a lesser level of labelling that tends to be seen as inoffensive by many people. Aussie. Pom. Yank. Girl (when used of an adult female). Boy (when used of an adult male). These labels are often used in a lighthearted way, sometimes even used by people of themselves, and any objection to them tends to be greeted with cries of 'lighten up', or similar advice couched in more vulgar terms. However, these too enable bigotry. It is for this reason that any statement of the form 'he is a/you are a x' is generally impolite. It is for this reason that there is a growing movement towards referring to, for example, people with a condition on the Autism spectrum as 'people with Autism' rather than 'Autistic people'. It's more polite, and less harmful.

Yet a third, almost invisible, level of labelling involves the use of terms in themselves innocuous as terms of insult. To do this, one merely uses the word, for example Catholic, Jew, Muslim, as if it were a term of opprobrium. We often see this technique coupled with the joining of two different terms as if they were inextricably linked. A good example of this in today's world is 'Muslim terrorist'. We see this all the time now, sometimes even from our government.

This kind of bigotry is often supported by the dragging in of racial, religious and other terms out of context. For example, 'black male' when referring to the perpetrator of a crime. A subtle message can be sent in this way, and it is very difficult to nail down the racist bias that's being overlaid on top of what purports to be a mere reporting of fact. You can see it, you can almost smell it, but just try proving it. Bias of this kind can be introduced all over the place, even, at times, without conscious volition, or at least, without conscious volition that you will ever get anyone to admit to. But he was black, they will say. "I'm just reporting the facts." 

We can't stop other people from doing this kind of thing. But what we can all do is learn to weed it out of our own speech and thinking. I have found a simple rule works well in all situations. If a label is not directly useful, if it doesn't convey extra meaning to what you are saying, if the meaning of your statement will not be vitiated by its omission, then don't use it. At all.

Just say no.

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