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Just A Thought
by Vern Seward

Political Correctness& Technology Clash In LA
December 1st, 2003

WARNING! The following text may include words, phrases, and ideas that some may find socially offensive. If you are not an adult, if name-calling still bothers you, or if you are a member of any social minority and is overly sensitive about being a member of that minority, then you should not read any further.

I believe that the more you use a word, the more you take away some of its power.

- Eddie Griffin

I'm going to get this out of the way right now, and please forgive any misspellings: nigger, wop, chink, spic, rag-head, whitey, fag, kike, spook, slope, hookie, hebe.

Words, right? These words exist, unintentionally or not, to offend someone. I'm sure you can think of other more offensive words and phrases, like urban ape, yellow nigger (from our Southeast Asian romp 3 decades ago), sand nigger (thanks to our recent Middle East escapades), and it goes down hill from there.

Words hurt because of the intent behind them; it is why Blacks can lovingly call each other niggers then turn around and beat the crap out of a White guy silly enough to try it.

Context, my friends, is an easy concept to understand. Words form sentences and so take on different meanings: You can play that funky music, White Boy, but that White Boy had better not touch my daughter!

Words can hurt and even destroy people; they are powerful, but only as powerful as we intend or allow them to be. So, who or what decides when words are offensive? After 9-11, the term 'Rag-Head' was popular even among people who would never call a Black man a Nigger, an Asian person a Slope, or a Jew a Kike. The phrase was intended to be offensive, and to someone who wears a turban or other cloth headdress, I would imagine it is. The problem is that the other extreme can be just as bad.

It is popular nowadays to come up with words to ensure that no one in our society is offended, to be 'politically correct'; hence, we get the term XXX-American, where 'XXX' is the country, social, or racial class of assumed origin. Black folks are now African-Americans, Asians are Asian-Americans, and White people are (much) less commonly referred to as European-Americans. These terms can be further refined to reflect particular sub-groups; Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and so on.

Some believe that we can level the social playing field by treating our social and cultural differences delicately, as if we must walk on social eggshells. Some people are so afraid of offending others that they find it hard to even talk to someone outside their particular social group. Is it OK to say, "Black people" in front of Black people? Is it a faux pas to discuss eye shape in the company of Asians? Is the Crusades a taboo subject with Catholics and Muslims in the room?

Sometimes we can be too sensitive. Sometimes it just makes sense to use words that, taken in different context, can offend, but used benignly, can accurately describe what is going on.

A good example of this can be seen in a recent article over at CNN.com reporting that some officials in the Los Angeles city government have asked computer makers to stop using the terms 'master' and 'slave' because some people find the terms, regardless of context, offensive. Here's some of that article:

Los Angeles officials have asked that manufacturers, suppliers and contractors stop using the terms "master" and "slave" on computer equipment, saying such terms are unacceptable and offensive.

The request -- which has some suppliers furious and others busy re-labeling components -- came after an unidentified worker spotted a videotape machine carrying devices labeled "master" and "slave" and filed a discrimination complaint with the county's Office of Affirmative Action Compliance.

In the computer industry, "master" and "slave" are used to refer to primary and secondary hard disk drives. The terms are also used in other industries.

"Based on the cultural diversity and sensitivity of Los Angeles County, this is not an acceptable identification label," Joe Sandoval, division manager of purchasing and contract services, said in a memo sent to County vendors.

"We would request that each manufacturer, supplier and contractor review, identify and remove/change any identification or labeling of equipment components that could be interpreted as discriminatory or offensive in nature," Sandoval said in the memo, which was distributed last week and made available to Reuters.

Now, after reading that, the first thing I said was, "That's close to the silliest thing I've ever read." (The silliest being the story about the guy who strapped a rocket onto his car in some desert out West to see how fast he could go.)

Then I thought about it for a while, looked at the subject from different angles, tried to understand where these officials in L.A. were coming from. I stewed on it off and on all weekend, and I've come to the conclusion that this is absolutely the silliest thing I've ever read.

Are they going to ask Crayola to relabel the black, yellow, red, and white crayons for fear that they might offend sensitive school kids? To be accepted into the United Nations, must Eastern European countries agree to rename the Black Sea to something more politically correct?

L.A. officials, take note: These are words, and they take on whatever meaning we intend for them to take.

Language morphs and modifies itself as the society or culture that bred it changes; words that mean one thing today can take on entirely new meanings a year from now. Cool was cool, then hot was hot, and it's always cool to be hot, and cool when its hot, but it's never cool to be hot when it's cool; then you're just sick.

Technology affects our language too; 250 years ago the words 'master' and 'slave' each meant something different and the words were seldom, if ever, used to describe anything other than a relationship between people. Today, either word can be used to describe more general relationships; as those between computers, planets, atoms, or people. As our society becomes more knowledgeable about the universe around it, so do our words modify themselves to help describe that universe. So, 'master' and 'slave' are useful in our everyday lives. You guys on the West Coast need to lighten up.

What now? When master and slave are used in the context of describing a hardware relationships are we to imagine White hard drives sitting idly by and sipping the electronic version of mint juleps, while overworked Black hard drives toil in harsh conditions, made to work against their will? Are we to now free all slave hard drives with a digital Emancipation Proclamation? Must we now give each newly freed slave hard drive computers of their own to work in; a digital version of 40 acres and a mule?

See what I mean? Silly!

I asked when should we stop using words if using them may offend some, but I think the better question is: When will we, as a society, learn that words have only what power we give them?

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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