12 March 2008

Sticks and stones may break my bones .... but names may kill me

Two references, recently, in blogs to which this one has informal links, to words as weapons in the cause of bigotry.

Dr C's commenter, whom I mentioned a couple of days back along , used the term "pali" in derogatory reference to Palestinians. As Dr C subsequently observed, this is reminiscent of labels such as prod, taig, etc, in northern Ireland intercommunal strife. To a Briton it is also reminiscent of an abusive term used by our racist right: "paki", similar in sound and abbreviated (from "Pakistani", though the term is applied indiscriminately to anyone of a Bengali, Indian, or Pakistani ethnicity), applied in the same way.

Jim Putnam, under the title More on words, connects the racial slur "nigger", and the dismissive "boy", with gender-abusive "bitch".

Both are good men ... I wish there were more like them.

What all these have in common is an intent to dehumanise the other. The inhuman make no call on our claims to human decency. I remember how rapidly the gutter press were able to convert "Argentinians" into "argies" during the cooked up Falklands/Malvinas war; it's easier to cheer the drowning, burning, blowing up, or otherwise painful killing of an "argie" than of an Argentinian human being.

If the word dehumanise seems extreme when applied to "boy", consider that we do not give children full rights. Jim remembers that "the rest of us slowly realized that for men in the military, boy was never an appropriate term" ... I would, personally, remove reference to the military: for men, boy is never an appropriate term. And, come to that, girl is never an appropriate term for women. The fact that women are far more often called "girls" than men "boys" reflects patriarchal power assumptions: "girls" are more explicitly subordinate, even subservient, than "women".

It's in the nature of these name calling games that they are asymmetric. Dr C's commenter would, no doubt, object strongly to being called a "yid" - and so he should, because nobody should submit to dehumanisation. Yet he feels entitled to apply the equivalent term "pali" to others. This is the same process which worked terrible black magic in Germany and elsewhere during the 1930s and 1940s. (J K Rowling illustrates it effectively in the Harry Potter novels, where the term of abuse is "mud bloods".)

There are victories for decency. Some terms have become unacceptable. The word "nigger" can no longer be used with such immunity in the US as it could thirty or forty years ago; and I'm delighted that the nearest British term, "wog", has apparently disappeared. But I can still hear "paki" here, and "spick" or "pollack" or "wop" there; and, of course, "bitch" ... and "girl". We still have a long way to go.

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