What's in a word?

2007-02-08 I often hear the word "prejudice" used negatively, as a synonym for bigotry. I really feel that this should qualify as maligning a perfectly good word.

Prejudice comes from the Latin words prae meaning prior and  judicium meaning judgment. The etymology of bigot is considerably less clear, but the earliest meaning seems to have been "religious hypocrite". Webster's currently offers the following definitions:

bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance

prejudice: 1: injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one's rights; especially : detriment to one's legal rights or claims 2 a (1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics

Now, while the primary definition for prejudice pertains to legal matters, the common usage (in my experience) is the last of the secondary definitions. Practically identical to bigot(ry). But I disagree. Prejudice isn't bad. In fact, I don't believe you can have a fully functional human without it.

Without prejudice, each interaction with someone new must contain no assumptions. We would have to behave as if we have never met a person before and had no idea what to expect. We would have to establish all of the things that we normally "take for granted" such as gender, modes of communication and perception, all of the areas of common ground that make it possible to walk up to a stranger and ask, "Can you tell me, is this the 4:13 train to Ipswitch?", without first establishing that they even speak your language.

We pre-judge people every day, and (usually) not in a bad way. If you see a kid with a mohawk, torn clothes, and way too much mascara, this is probably not the best person to ask about what operas are currently in town. The woman next to him in the evening gown, expensive jewelry and immaculately styled hair would probably be a better bet. Does the Goth actually know which operas are playing? Maybe. Does the socialite know? Possibly not. But if you choose to ask the socialite instead of the Goth, you have made a decision based on prejudice.

For me, the key is whether or not (and perhaps how gracefully) you are willing to change your perception when it's the Goth that knows the answer. There should be no shame on someone making a reasonable mistake, and you should always make some allowance for honest ignorance (and there is another rant I suppose), but I think that in our (US of A) society, we much prefer to castigate rather than tolerate.

Prejudice isn't bad, but is in fact a necessary tool for interacting with fellow humans.

Bigotry...not even worth talking about.

2007-01-15 There are certain words that allow us to make deductions about the person who used them.

I know a young woman who I suspect is gay. Now, it's really none of my damned business and it doesn't matter either way, so I'd never just come right out and ask. But it's not as though I can stop myself from trying to determine whether or not she is, in fact, gay. So I was speaking to her recently and she said "My girlfriend and I...". At which point, it suddenly occurred to me that I still had no idea. Sure, "girlfriend" could mean she was gay. It could just as easily mean "female friend".

So that got me thinking. If a guy says "boyfriend", you can make a reasonable deduction about his preferences vis-á-vis horizontal dance partners. If he says "girlfriend"? Nothing. Not with certainty. If a gal uses the word "boyfriend"? Yup. Now you've got something.

I found it very interesting that "boyfriend" will nearly always tell you something about the person that used it, while "girlfriend" was much less reliable as an indicator.

That's all. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Please note that we are only discussing the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend". The reliability of actual boyfriends and girlfriends will vary (regardless of gender).

2006-11-03 I was thinking the other day about how words influence the way we think. While I have no idea what started me on the subject, it occurred to me that we frequently credit the supernatural with responsibility for our success or failure when the outcome is not directly related to actions we take. There is no appropriate congratulation or condolence for random selection. We give the credit to "luck", "fortune", "God" and other such imaginary forces. We congratulate people for catching a lucky/unlucky break, receiving good/bad fortune, or being blessed/cursed.

Try it sometime. Here's a practice exercise: Your friend/spouse/coworker is telling you about something that happened to them yesterday. For the first time in their life, they left the house without their driver's license. As they are driving, a truck throws a stone from the road and breaks their tail light. Shortly thereafter, a police cruiser pulls onto the road behind them. The officer signals for them to pull over. When they tell the officer that they don't have the required documentation, the officer tells them that they match the description of someone wanted for questioning and since they can't prove that they are who they say they are, they will have to come to the station until their identity can be established.

Now, other than stating the obvious crappyness of the situation, what do you say? Does your first thought involve luck? or fortune? Did you place the blame on "the odds" (for or against)? Even when we talk about the odds, it seems to me like we are still implying luck of one type or another.

It seems like we can offer generic congratulations or condolences, but if we try to specify the reason for the congratulations/condolences we have to bring the supernatural into it, either explicitly or implicitly. Why is that?