Lord, I miss George Carlin. He did a bit years ago that has stayed with me, as no one has ever deconstructed language the way he could.
In it, Carlin talked about how the condition we now refer to as PTSD was originally termed “shell shock” following World War I. The same thing became “battle fatigue” after World War II, and changed into “operational exhaustion” on the heels of the Korean War. By the time of Vietnam, it had morphed into post-traumatic stress disorder. Today, we know it by its acronym, and as Carlin said, “The pain is completely buried under jargon.”
But it seems to me there is at least one area where terminology is getting harder edged, rather than softer.
As a child in the segregated South, I remember people being referred to as “prejudiced.” Usually against people of color. Any color. Well, they were prejudiced, but that was only half the problem.
Then, in 1971, All in the Family hit television. Archie Bunker wasn’t just prejudiced; in fact, he was a bigot. Almost everyone viewing the show knew at least one person like Archie—stubborn, ignorant, and full of bias against everyone who wasn’t like him. (I suspect everyone reading this column still knows someone like that.)
Although some people thought of him as lovable, I certainly did not. But it was important for him to be held up for ridicule as a reverse role model—what not to be, so to speak.
I suppose “bigot” just didn’t have the punch it needed as an insult, even though it encompasses prejudice against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, Jewish people, Muslims, the works. We now tend to use specific terms (racist, misogynist, homophobe, anti-Semite, etc.) to single out the particular piece of bigotry on display in the moment. And these are not disparate groups; a Venn diagram would show a whole lot of folks in the intersection.
And now the term “white supremacist” is gaining traction, and it’s even harder edged than “racist,” although it means pretty much the same thing. Congress passed a joint resolution earlier this week which includes a condemnation of white supremacists—I think they’re trying to get Trump on the record. The fact that Congress found this necessary to do should give pause to every American.
I recently saw this comment on Facebook: “I know every Trump supporter is not a racist, because some of my friends are Republicans.” Isn’t that a jewel? I don’t remember who made this comment on Facebook, but I’ve been trying to unpack it for a few days now. I see a little of that George Carlin word softening.
Can we infer that the writer doesn’t seem comfortable admitting that some of his friends are Trump supporters, as he called them Republicans instead? Does he think his friends and those racists are two distinct groups? Would he acknowledge that his Trump supporting friends might be “racist enablers?”
Is it possible that some of these friends are just a little—well, “prejudiced?” But that’s rather a slippery slope, isn’t it? After all, we don’t want to muck up the potluck. (Apologies to Trae Crowder, who did not soften that expression and used a vulgarism that rhymes with muck and luck.)
And sometimes it’s not about what is being said; it’s about what isn’t being said. I have admonished others and been admonished myself not to bring up politics in certain settings. Perhaps this kind of denial helps get us through some potentially awkward moments, but at what price? Have you made the conscious decision not to challenge an off-hand comment because it really wasn’t worth getting into, only to think later that maybe it was? I know I have.
It’s hard trying to work through all this stuff. But, bless him, I just know George Carlin could put this all in perspective and make us laugh at the same time. And we really need both perspective and laughter.
What do you think? Anybody up for a séance?