TCS Daily

I Feel Therefore I Am

By James R. Harrigan - December 8, 2003 12:00 AM

At some point in the late 20th century the English language underwent a silent revision. The verb "to think" was replaced by "to feel," and as a result feelings have overtaken thoughts in American public discourse.


By the time this silent revolution in language was complete, what has been termed the Oprah Winfreyization of America was a foregone conclusion. In the vernacular of present-day America, the phrase "I feel" dots the linguistic landscape, and when it is uttered the unspoken assumption is that all feelings are equally valid, no matter how unwarranted those feelings might be. This pernicious trend invariably finds its fullest expression in the context of race.


The most recent example of this began innocently enough in May 2003, when a black employee in Los Angeles county's Probation Department filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Affirmative Action Compliance in response to labels on a videotape machine marked "master" and "slave." How these labels warranted a charge of discrimination is not entirely clear, but in this, the Era of Bad Feelings, definitions rarely get in the way when a complaint is lodged. Joe Sandoval, a division manager in the Internal Services Department, didn't miss a beat.


In a memo dated Nov 18, 2003, with "Los Angeles County" in the "from" field, Sandoval wrote that "The County of Los Angeles actively promotes and is committed to ensure a work environment that is free from any discriminatory influence be it actual or perceived."


Actual or perceived?


Apparently complaints of discrimination need no longer be based in anything as elusive as reality in Los Angeles County. All one needs in order to be justified in leveling a charge of discrimination is the perception of "discriminatory influence." In short, feelings are all that matter.


The memo outlined a new consciousness for county administration, asserting that "it is the County's expectation that our manufacturers, suppliers and contractors make a concentrated effort to ensure that any equipment, supplies or services that are provided to County departments do not possess or portray an image that may be construed as offensive or defamatory in nature."


"One such recent example," the memo continued, "included the manufacturer's labeling of equipment where the words "Master/Slave" appeared to identify the primary and secondary sources. Based on the cultural diversity and sensitivity of Los Angeles County, this is not an acceptable identification label."


One needn't be concerned that "master" and "slave" are, in this case, technical terms denoting the nature of a relationship between pieces of (non-human) equipment. As such, no "discriminatory influence" could have possibly been intended. No... the only thing that matters is that these words damaged someone's feelings. As a result, these specific words are now presumably off-limits for all time regardless of context, if only in Los Angeles County.


Los Angeles County is hardly an anomaly in this respect.


Take, for instance, America's on-again off-again hate affair with the word "niggardly." A word meaning "miserly" is by definition pejorative, but the actual meaning of the word scarcely matters when feelings are concerned. The real problem with the word niggardly is that it shares its first four letters with the granddaddy of all racial slurs. That the words derive from different roots and thus mean different things is quite irrelevant. The simple fact is that the term in question sounds like an offensive word, and this is enough to warrant punitive measures when it is uttered.


Washington, DC Mayor Anthony Williams believed as much when a white staff member, David Howard, had the temerity to actually use "niggardly" in a staff meeting in 1999. A black official took offense at Howard's language, thinking it racist, and Howard was relieved of his employment. The mayor explained that although Howard didn't say "anything that was in itself racist," the term could be misunderstood, and this was like "getting caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion."


Soon thereafter, a University of Wisconsin student called for the banning of the word on campus after a professor used it in a discussion of Chaucer. The fact that Chaucer himself had used a form of the word in Troylus and Cryseyde was apparently irrelevant. And then there was the case of Stephanie Bell, a fourth-grade teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina, who in 2002 had the nerve to use the offending term in a classroom discussion. A parent, Akwana Walker, claimed offense. Ms. Bell was ultimately forced to apologize to Walker, whose child was transferred to another (presumably less literate) class. Bell was also, according to her son, formally reprimanded for "lacking sensitivity to the school's diverse population of students and not being aware of cultural differences." In order to become properly sensitized, Bell was required to attend sensitivity training.


One wonders why the school board, principal, and offended parent were not compelled to take English lessons.


Or consider Federico de Jesus' recent tirade against scholar Victor David Hanson. De Jesus, a staffer for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, accused Hanson of being a racist at a recent Capitol Hill briefing. Hanson, a scholar of ancient Rome and Greece and professor at California State University-Fresno, was introduced as "a classicist" before his remarks. De Jesus, unable to distinguish between a "classicist" and a "classist," accused Hanson of harboring a bias against immigrants, thereby proving himself a racist. De Jesus stormed out of the room, stopping only long enough to help himself to a pizza, no doubt in a gesture of protest.


One is hard pressed to see how any of these are properly understood as racial issues, but the feelings of the offended are all that matters. And these feelings are valid, in beautiful circularity, simply because they are felt. In the end, common sense, civility, and language are held hostage when all feelings are equally valid, and we are all slaves to our unthinking, if sensitive, masters.


James R. Harrigan is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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