But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
— George Orwell
In these times of language abuse and language control – when a Supreme Court nominee cannot define “woman” (because she is so politically compromised) – I must once again note that manufactured offense knows no limits. There is no end to it, even though it crosses the bounds of commonsense and reason.
A couple of years ago, a professor was suspended for teaching a Chinese expression, na ge (or various other Romanizations) that is a filler-word in Chinese, like um, uh, and like in English – but happens to sound like the single most powerful trigger-word in our language.
“Trigger,” when used about language, is, as a metaphorical verb, endogenous from a cause-and-effect point of view. It is a “middle verb,” active in form, passive in meaning.
Direct electrical stimulation of a nerve can physically trigger a reflex. But to speak of a word “triggering” you is to say that you choose to react a certain way, that you trigger yourself, because….well, probably because your social group or the situation expects you to act that way.
I call n***** the most powerful trigger word (see, it’s so radioactive that I can’t even write it out) because African-Americans and others have decided that the use of this word by the wrong people is justification for outrage, shaming, and violence.
But words don’t have power.
People give them power. Weak people. People so frail and weak that they allow a mere word to control them, to stir them to anger, fear, and hostility, and make them feel pain, “marginalization,” trauma, and other ills.
Students said the Chinese phrase made them feel that they had to “fight for [their] sense of peace and mental well-being.”
Why is it so taboo?
The utterance of n***** by the wrong people in the wrong context produces a blaze of hatred and vengeance, the way a magnifying glass focuses the rays of the sun, for every offense, real and imagined, past and present, by White people. It is license to act with unbridled anger at the speaker, because of all these offenses by all these other, unknown people. It is a very useful blank check for vengeance.
The taboo has been successful. No one uses the n-word in public.
News anchors and other public voices get away with saying “n-word” itself, and there’s a debate – which there shouldn’t be – about whether works of literature that use the full word can productively be discussed by tiptoeing around it with “n-word.”
For my college Honors Thesis, I read novels by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others, to describe how Black English was rendered by Black authors. The n-word was sprinkled throughout, yet I came away untriggered and untraumatized.]
But the language police are running out of targets.
That can’t be allowed to happen. The battle for control is never over. We must keep the crusade going and find more offenses.
Thus, in the incident under discussion, a group of exquisitely sensitive students was offended, and a professor disciplined for using a foreign word that sounds like the taboo English word.
A whole new level
This is taking manufactured offense to a whole new level. It is the height of absurdity. The students’ complaint calls the Chinese phrase is “a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term.” No, it is not. It just sounds the same. That is not a synonym.
The Dean of the Business School wrote, with consummate ignorance and the requisite political correctness, that “it is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.”
Again, no. It just sounds like it.
And not exactly like it. The Chinese sounds aren’t phonetically the same as the English ones, and there are tones involved. But never mind. Offense is in the ear of the beholder. With a little effort, I could find languages that have this same sequence as a separate phrase or word, maybe even a common noun or verb. Are we forbidden from learning those languages?
And how about the actual Chinese usage? Are a billion-plus Chinese going around committing racial slurs 24/7, as often as we say “uh/um/like”? How can we make them stop?
Fortunately, reason prevailed, and the professor was exonerated .
Once again I call out professional linguists to explain basic principles to the public. What’s the difference between a synonym and a homonym? Not one person in a thousand could tell you, which means that people are as ignorant of language as of everything else. And that ignorance, as the present case shows, can ruin lives.
Chomsky, writing your 300th book – you haven’t time to go on TV and explain this simple point?
Pinker the thinker – you have time to chat with Socrates (recent Harper’s), but do you ever think about how the layperson’s false language “knowledge” is used to destroy lives and careers?
McWhorter – are you the only one with the minimally erect spine to speak out? And why don’t you have a weekly show on cable news, skewering woke language? There’s certainly enough material.
I know: you dare not offend the institutions that employ you and that propound this insane doctrine of oppressor and victim, of skin color as a sign of merit, of proportional representation and race-based grading.
A better career move
Rather than live in such a world of lies, language abuses, and groupthink, I would resign and apply for a job at the local Waste Management office, for it is better to haul garbage than to spew it.