I got to know of a seminar today at UC Berkeley. “Bioengineering Advances for Economically Disadvantaged Societies” by Prof Boris Rubinsky. The title of the talk bugs me no end. In what way is “economically disadvantaged” an improvement on the plain English word “poor”?
Are the people who try to avoid simple English in talking about the world as it is “cognitively disadvantaged” and not simply “stupid”? In what way does circumlocution advance our understanding of the topics we need to discuss straightforwardly? Does tabooing a word alter the reality that we need to confront?
Here’s what I wrote a few years ago (“Denying Reality,” March 2007) on the same matter.
The business plan was about creating a business which would help the blind become more productive. But the presenter took elaborate pains to avoid the word “blind”and instead constantly referred to the “visually challenged.” I suppose the PC police would have immediately handcuffed and hauled off anyone who was so insensitive as to directly point to blindness and call it such. No, a person is not blind but is visually challenged. And I wondered how long it will be before the PC police decree that “visually challenged” is itself un-PC and now you have to refer to blind people as “visually differently enabled” and in due time, it would have to be “non-visually enhanced” and then to “non-visually gifted.”
There is something perverse in the verbal contortions attempted to appear politically correct. Being blind is abnormal but it is not a stigma. Making the word unacceptable needlessly stigmatizes the person. If it were possible to alter reality by denying it, I would be wholeheartedly in the business of denial. If we could get rid of poverty by calling poor people “economically challenged,” you bet I would never ever talk about poor people but go one step ahead and call them “economic opportunity group.” Short people would first be “vertically challenged” and then “horizontally gifted” and finally perhaps “potential vertical opportunity group.”
This phenomenon of attempting to alter reality by denying uncomfortable aspects of it reaches it pinnacle in the automatic replacement of certain words. In the US, the word “black” to refer to people of African descent was considered an improvement on the racial term “negro” (which etymologically means black in Spanish and Portuguese). Then black itself got demoted to being a derogatory term and the new correct way was “colored” and then colored became “African American.” Every instance of black was automatically replaced by “African American” in word processing software of some PC newspapers. So a black and white photograph now became “African American and white photo” or the company’s bottomline was finally in the “African American.”
All this verbal gymnastics would be amusing were it not that real world adverse consequences arise from it. Terrorism, for instance, is a reality which cannot be confronted by denying the root causes of terrorism. Poverty, similarly, has very easy to identify causes but which must not be named. There is an infantile superstition that makes some people believe that by naming something, that something comes into being. It is like
blackAfrican American magic.
It is not hard to look squarely at reality and admit that things are not perfect. That acknowledgment is a necessary first step on the long journey to change whatever we can change. Yes, poverty exists because poor people exist. By calling them “economically disadvantaged” you do not reduce poverty. As the Buddha taught, we have to mindfully observe the both the internal and the external world so that we can comprehend the nature of reality. Only then can we hope to be effective. We need to acknowledge that many of us are metaphorically blind and a few of us are literally blind, and only then we can make progress on our path of enlightenment.
Here endth the rant.