Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Insensible, Insensitive

In these days of sociopolitical correctness, the horse comes before Descartes. This is never so evident as on the Internet, where people expect everyone to do their research before making noise.

However, while some kinds of research are obvious and should be expected, some are less so. Supposing you use the word 'git' or 'twit' in a descriptive (and mildly pejorative) sense. Then someone points out that it makes light of a large and much-abused group of people. Are you to blame?

On one hand, you should know it is pejorative. It might be a humorous term, a colloquial piece of micro-abuse in your circles, but it is meant to be insulting to some extent. See also 'lame', 'cripple', 'dumb' and other terms of endearment-abuse.

On the other hand, how would you know about other people's sensibilities and sensitivities? I would certainly be mortified to be cracking jokes about 'lame jokes' only to discover that my anonymous interlocutor was short a lower limb. But in most discourse, to call a joke 'lame' or to say 'this hardware is crippled' is not an attempt to make fun of the limb-disadvantaged.

As words take on new life, the mutability of semantic burden and historical burden affects their impact. Old Anglo-Saxon words once used as commonplace lexical items went through a period of stern, stiff censorship before becoming what they are now — almost-unweighted particles of expletive speech.

Just today, I was metaphorically hauled up by my collar and bastinadoed for lacking empathy when discussing why a certain term was insensitive when used about cemeteries and nature. I had some idea, which is why I've never myself used the word in my own communications (except those discussing the word itself as a subject). But I was stunned to see how vitriolic the 'you should have known' attacks were.

In a way, the attempts to keep discourse civilised are becoming as barbaric or tribalistic in their own way as what they are avoiding. People won't scruple at using expletives you might be sensitive to, in order to make their point about words they think others are sensitive to. And they will justify themselves by intensity of emotional response, and vilify you for attempting reason.

I have no issue, however, with people politely telling me why they think I shouldn't use certain words and where I shouldn't use them. That's what style guides and etiquette guides are for. Some words will offend pretty obviously, and a one should indeed avoid those.

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