Language: January 2007 Archives

Jews Making Oaths to Christ

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One way to be inconsistent is to hold two views that are inconsistent with each other. Another is to do something that, whether you realize it or not, is inconsistent with your official view. I'm regularly complaining that people confuse these two things. Only the latter can ever accurately be called hypocrisy, and only then if it's done regularly with the full knowledge of the person doing it. A slip here or there is not hypocrisy. It's just humanity.

But pragmatic inconsistencies are still worth pointing out, because people who engage in them ought to change their view or seek to change their behavior. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has an example that seems to me to be exactly the kind of inadvertent pragmatic inconsistency that I wouldn't call hypocrisy but do think ought to lead to some revision of belief or practice. Jennifer Gilmore reports on the behavior of her Jewish parents:

My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always been obsessed with Christmas. He grew up in Minneapolis, in an unobservant household, and he considers it part of his childhood. "I remember the lights, the trees," he used to say to my little sister and me. "It was magical." He decorates the mantel with Christmas cards and tapes mistletoe to the doorways, and one year he even tried to get my mother, also Jewish, with a much more observant upbringing, to allow an evergreen wreath on our front door. ''I can't live with that,'' she said. "I just can't. Nothing on the outside of this house. We're Jews, for Christ's sake."

Now there's a separate issue of the inconsistency of allowing it on the inside but not the outside. That seems to me to be a deliberate allowance of the behavior in private but not in public, which is outright hypocrisy of a very crude sort. It's ok for us to do this, as long as no one knows about it. If it's ok for you to do, then you should be able to do it without embarrassment, and if it's not then you shouldn't be doing it anywhere.

But even aside from that, I think there's a much more interesting kind of inconsistency going on here. There seems to be a tremendous resistance to being seen as doing anything related to Christmas. The reason is because they're Jewish. This is a line that I've heard often enough from Jewish friends, despite the fact that Christmas trees are a non-religious symbol of a secularized holiday. Some Christians might choose to endow Christmas trees with some religious meaning, but as most Americans practice Christmas there is no symbol to the tree that has anything particular to do with Christianity.

People of Color

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Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has an interesting post about his dislike of the term 'people of color'. I've never been taken with the term myself, but I don't think there are any very strong objections to it that don't also apply to other terms that I readily use. For example, it seems funny to act as if white people have no color, but we do speak that way when we call white people white and non-white people non-white. If it's bad to speak of people of color, then it's bad to speak of people who are non-white. In terms of economy of words, it's awkward to say "people of color" as opposed to "colored people", but the former doesn't have the negative connotations now usually associated with the latter, and if grammatical sleight-of-hand allows for a good result without changing the actual terms much is that so bad? There's no really strong linguistic or moral reason against it. So why not?

Well, Pullum just doesn't like the term. That's it. He doesn't judge anyone as linguistically or morally on the wrong side for using it. He just doesn't like it and doesn't use it himself. I'm not sure I dislike it as strongly as he does, but I've never been especially excited about it, and it has nothing to do with the reasons he gives in his slightly unfair characterization of conservative views on race. (I say slightly unfair, because I think what he's describing does happen, but he doesn't seem to allow for people who have views very similar to his on the moral questions but different views on the political ones, which is exactly where I stand.)

I first encountered the term during orientation in my first year of college, and it struck me as very strange. I can't say I've taken to it more over the years, but I don't have any reason I can think of why I shouldn't like it except ones that rely on bad arguments. I suppose it's better than 'non-white' in one way, because it's not defining people in terms of what they aren't.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I can think of a way that 'people of color' makes any sense to refer exactly to the people it refers to except in the sense that they aren't white. So maybe I just find it deceptive as a way to avoid saying something else that might offend some people. In other words, maybe it avoids overt offense by relying on offensive assumptions that aren't immediately discernible without reflection. But I think this might take more argument than I'm prepared to give at this point.

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