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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Communication and Meaning: Not All Words Are Bad

This is a ninja (clipartion.com)
I really enjoy substitute teaching. Even when I am in a "difficult" class I have fun. Perhaps it is because I have a little bit of evil in me and relish in the challenge of an upstart student or two. I also enjoy not having to deal with school politics. I don't plan on being in one place long enough to get sucked in to any drama.

Until one day I inadvertently did, and it had to do with a word. I was sitting in the staff lounge and I overheard a teacher talking to the other teachers in the room about a memo of some sort that said teachers and students were no longer allowed to say the word...


Ninja.

That's right. The word that evokes images of stealthy, black-clad assassins and spies who float between shadows undetected is now a "bad word." And my immediate thought was, "How the hell is that a bad word?" As I continued to listen in on the conversation, it became apparent that certain students were using the word "ninja" as a derogatory slang - basically administrative staff likened it to the "other N word." I can only assume students were calling other students of Asian descent "ninja" and someone took offense.

My initial impulse was to get up, walk calmly out of the room, then start running down the halls yelling "Ninja Ninja Ninja!" at the top of my lungs. I obviously thought better of that idea, seeing as I really like my subbing job, and continued to sit quietly as I finished my lunch. What I did end up doing was going home and telling my son, "If you ever say 'ninja' appropriately in school and somebody gets you in trouble, let me know and I'll take care of it."


Ninjas from my childhood (tvtropes.org)
And I'm taking care of it now by writing this post. This was the last straw in the extremely long list of atrocities to the English language and our social interaction that "Political Correctness" (PC) has committed. I grew up learning that words can hurt, words are weapons, and words must be chosen with care. But I also learned that words are a powerful means to make a point.

In grade school, when someone called me "four-eyes" I would yell back "slant-eyes" (if they were Asian, then fitting, but it was mostly an implication that they would need glasses soon, too). If someone called my best friend a "fish-face haole" (haole is what locals in Hawaii call white peeps) I came back with "no-brain Portagee" (Portagee=Portuguese). Someone called me a half-breed once. I called him a dying-breed (mind you, I wasn't talking about his heritage, which was very much alive and well - I was commenting on his likely inadequate ability to pass on his family name). I got into it with another student in college for butting in on a personal conversation because she overheard me say "women drivers" to my friends - not to her (I made her rather uncomfortable).

I didn't need someone to come rescue me, to tell the other person for me to stop using mean words or be more respectful. If you weren't respectful to me, I sure as hell wasn't going to be respectful to you. And in those rare moments where I am the instigator of meanness (which is NOT the same as telling a joke or using a stereotype to emphasize a moment with humor. Grow a funny bone PC whiners), then I would fully expect the other to put me in my place. Your conversations are your own, but if you want to get into a name-calling fight with me, bring it on. I know the stereotypes just as well as you, I'm sure. I'm also not going to tell you to stop saying something to me because you offend me. I'm going to tell you to stop saying something to me because you sound stupid.

There are a select number of words that should never be said in anything other than an educational or historical context. The "N" word is one of them. The word itself has very benign beginnings. It is derived from either the word "negro" (Spanish) or "niger" (Latin) and was used by colonial explorers to describe the areas of Africa where the population had dark skin. The misappropriation of the origin word led to the derogatory racial slur we know today. Another example of a misappropriated word is "Chink." This word means a narrow opening or crack, not a Chinese or other Asian person. The word 'guk' (rhymes with 'look') should be coupled with 'Han' at all times (Hanguk) when said to a Korean. Unless, if I'm not mistaken, you are asking for one of Korea's delicious soup dishes. You should probably be at least a little fluent in the language while you're at it.

It is misappropriation of words that leads to unnecessary conflict. It is the hyper-sensitivity of our thin-skinned culture that leads to needless debates on free speech. If we can speak in understandable sentences, then we should be educated enough to know when to be offended. There are words we have a right to say, and words that have no business being in the dictionary. Yet there are derogatory words and stereotypes for every race and culture. The only positive to this is that if someone calls you a racial slur, you have a variety of come-back responses. If you can't take what you dish out, keep your mouth shut.
Come on, I know you played this (fruitninja.com)

We can't let careless people misappropriate our words. If we do, then soon we won't be allowed to say ANYTHING. And I will not be told that I can't say ninja because someone might be offended. Ninja is not a racial slur. If a friend sneaks up and scares me, I might say, "You so ninja!" If my son pulls a smooth move on his video game, I could say "That was ninja!" If I see someone on a snowboard or skateboard sticking a mean trick, I'll want to say, "What a ninja move!" Because that's what ninjas do. By definition, they move with stealth, purpose, and athletic skill.

Yes, the origin of the word is from Japan. Japan has ninjas. But if you're going to call an Asian person a ninja just because of their ethnicity and not because they demonstrated a definitive act of ninjaism, you need a slap across the head. You are not allowed to misappropriate that word, or any other word. Period.