Thursday, April 02, 2009

10 terms not to use with Muslims

That is the title of a fascinating article from Christian Science Monitor writer Chris Seiple.
"As President Obama considers his first speech in a Muslim majority country (he visits Turkey April 6-7), and as the US national security establishment reviews its foreign policy and public diplomacy, I want to share the advice given to me from dear Muslim friends worldwide regarding words and concepts that are not useful in building relationships with them. Obviously, we are not going to throw out all of these terms, nor should we. But we do need to be very careful about how we use them, and in what context. " What follows is a study in how translations- even word for word- frequently do not convey the exact meanings intended; words, even ideas, are colored by history and culture that you may be unaware of.

While this phenomenon is fairly obvious to students of language and history, it is equally true but much less obvious that this occurs within cultures as well. We talk about the melting pot, and "American culture", but even with TV and the internet we are not a unified culture- just a few miles or a few years can still make a vast difference in the words we use and the meanings of them. If race and religion are factored in, the differences can arise within just a few blocks. Or even in the same house, between generations.

I first became aware of this as a teenager. My mother had destroyed some of my literature that she had found, deeming it obscene. During the course of the ensuing fight I called her a book burner. She burst into hurt and furious tears. "How can you call your own mother a Nazi?", she screamed. You see, when and where she grew up, a "book burner" was a Nazi. Not "Nazi" like people at church use it today, meaning "Republican", but a genuine Jew-killing, goose-stepping Nazi. So even though she had in fact just burned a book, she was certainly no book burner!

I know that this effect crops up in the blogs and forums I frequent. Sometimes a response will be (to me, or to the original poster if it's my response) so non-linear, so non-sequiter that it's obvious that we have just talked past each other without comprehension. But I suspect that sometimes when emotions flare, the same thing has just occurred, but just subtly enough that it wasn't caught. I wonder how much pain and violence has been caused over the years by an uncaught connotation-shift?

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