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This place matters

Monday, September 21, 2015

I wholeheartedly agree with your wholly untenable position

I have been reading a lot of kids' books about the Civil War recently, because that is a perfectly normal thing for a woman my age with no children to do*. And something has been really bugging me.
It's the slaves. That is, it's the word slave. And the word owner. And master, and bought and sold. Fact is, it is impossible for a human being to ever belong to another human being. It is as impossible to buy a person as it is to own one. Words like slave, and master, and owner legitimize slavery. 
So I completely agree with Michael Todd Landis' not-so-succinctly-named article "These Are Words Scholars Should No Longer Use to Describe Slavery and the Civil War". Landis says that when we use the word slave-owners, we legitimize slavery. And he's right. He suggests using the word enslavers instead. The word slave-owners is incorrect, but enslavers sounds absurd and reeks of political correctness gone wild. And yet.
It wouldn't be without precedent though. If you go to college to learn about developmental disabilities nowadays, you won't hear the word retarded getting thrown around. Why? Well, take a second to close your eyes and picture a retarded person. What do they look like? Ugly? Drooling, slack-jawed, contorted face, pigeon-toed? You see a caricature instead of a person. Do a Google Image search on the word retarded and every single result mocks people with developmental disabilities. Search person with a developmental disability and you get results like these: 
Individuals of all shapes and sizes every one different and none highlighting a negative stereotype. I hate awkward circumlocutions as much as the next guy, but words like retarded legitimize and reinforce the idea that people with disabilities are drooling idiot deserving our mockery. So is person with a disability an awkward and silly-sounding phrase? Sure. And yet.

We all know the Gandhi quote about how your thoughts become your words, but actually, I think it works both ways. Our thoughts become our words, but our words frequently control our thoughts without our even knowing it.
So is it absurd to rename plantations to slave labor camps, and the Union army to the United States army? Maybe. But slave labor camp is more accurate, more precise, and less of a euphemism. And maybe if we change how we speak about slavery, we'll change how we see its legacy.

*When she's doing research for a kids' book she's trying to write.

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