Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Politics of "Articulate"

Poor Joe Biden has got himself into trouble by praising Barack Obama. You might well ask, how can someone get into trouble by praising another person? Well that happens in PC America. His mistake? He called Obama "articulate", and the shit hit the fan. Evidently the word is racist when used for Blacks. I didn't know that, and I bet neither did Biden, but there it is. The liberal left and the African American intelligentsia is outraged. The NYT has some astoundingly spluttering, enraged reactions...

Now this really irritates me. How does one know which word is offensive to a certain section of society? Should this just be a hit or miss? Maybe oppressed minorities all over the world should come out with a list of words and contexts in which they are offensive. And remember, even if you take care not to praise a Black person in case he/she finds it condescending, there is no guarantee that others will not. Take this quote in the same article:

"But here is a pointer. Do not use it as the primary attribute of note for a black person if you would not use it for a similarly talented, skilled or eloquent white person. Do not make it an outsized distinction for Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, if you would not for the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman. Do not make it the sole basis for your praise of the actor Forest Whitaker if it would never cross your mind to utter it about the expressive Peter O’Toole."


Hmm...okay, but what about other non-balanced contexts? Can I use the word for Mary Sue Coleman, if I don't use it for Lawrence Summers? Or will she then consider it offensive because I used it for a woman and not a man?

What if I use it for Paris Hilton instead of Susan Sarandon. Will Paris be offended because she is part of the mentally retarded minority? Hahahaha...okay the last sentence was a joke. I wonder who would call Paris Hilton articulate? Lindsey Lohan perhaps.

Anyway, coming back to the original point, it's probably time that minority stop scrutinizing each and every comment, or statement, or word through the prism of racism and just sometimes give speakers the benefit of the doubt. Remember the human vocabulary, especially English is really not enough to convey our thoughts completely ad sometimes we use words because there are no immediate alternatives in our minds. The intentions needen't be racist all the time. And neither are words. A word like "articulate" is in no way comparable to, say, the N word because "articulate" is used universally.

Let us not vilify and marginalize a word just because of perceived connotations. We have already done the same with "gay" and "come". Let's not put "articulate" in the same category.

Our vocabulary is limited as it is.

3 comments:

GREATBONG said...

I would tend to side with the "minorities" on this one simply because the way the sentence has been framed by Biden does, in fact, convey the subtext that Obama is "articulate" whereas other African Americans are not. Look again at the sentence:

"the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy"

Look at the word "first". I think he gives himself up right there. Biden incidentally does have a record of subtly racist comments and it has been rightfully said of him that the one thing that stands between Biden and a run for President is his mouth.

Concluding, if Biden had said "Obama is articulate, bright, clean and nice-looking" and left it at that I am sure noone would mind.

Shan said...

That's a good point Arnab. However, if the grouse was that his entire sentence was racist, I would agree. Singling out the word 'articulate' seems to me rather ufair. Why not 'bright' or 'clean' then? Why just 'articulate'?

drift wood said...

stumbled here frm GB's blog after reading ur sly comments on the fracas b/w one rishi & paul. laughed my butt off on that one. This is a superb read.