"Now the objections center on the language of another time, the context of another era, because the values of today are uncomfortable with the values of yesterday. Well, that isn't enough for me."
Birth of a Notion
Jan. 7, 2011
Sometimes I get really frustrated with political correctness.
I mean, I understand the objective — which is to, ultimately, rid the culture and the language of things that are offensive to demographic groups that have faced discrimination in the past (and some continue to face it in the present) — and I applaud those efforts.
Those efforts are sincere and well–meaning, if misguided at times.
One such misguided effort was addressed today in a column by Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post–Dispatch.
I don't read the Post–Dispatch regularly, but I have read it on the occasions when I have been in the St. Louis area, and I have always been impressed with the quality of its writing.
(Of course, as someone who has not only worked for newspapers but also studied their history in pursuit of my bachelor's and master's degrees, I am also influenced, I suppose, by the knowledge that the paper was founded by Joseph Pulitzer, who established the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes for exceptional journalism.)
It's been awhile since I've been in St. Louis, though, and I have heard that some things have changed. My friends who still live in the area tell me that, in addition to being printed on smaller pages, the newspaper relies much more on advertising and wire copy than it did.
But, in spite of all that, the writers at the Post–Dispatch still practice good, solid journalism, as far as I can see, and a good example of that is McClellan's column.
Apparently, he wrote a column last weekend about American military involvement in Libya. Originally, he had compared American military activity to a "tar baby" and was informed by an editor that the term was considered racist. The editor recommended changing the comparison to "swamp," presumably to prevent the message from being lost in a debate over semantics.
McClellan acknowledged that he understood why his editor felt the change was necessary, and he was glad that his point could be preserved without being lost in a distracting — and, frankly, irrelevant — argument.
Nevertheless, McClellan wrote, "I found the whole thing unsettling and sad."
I understood immediately what he meant. It's the same thing I wrote about earlier this year.
I've always been a writer, and I am against the needless, unjustified intrusion of 21st century sensibilities on 19th century writings (and, in my opinion, it is always unjustified).
McClellan's column ought to be read in full, but still I feel compelled to quote him — because he makes his point so well.
The Tar Baby story, as McClellan observes, "was an African–American folktale, part of a series of such tales collected by Joel Chandler Harris and published in 1881. And when I say African–American, I mean the original African–Americans, the slaves. "
Those slaves, he continues, were storytellers. "Their slavemasters kept them illiterate, so they developed an oral tradition." And there was wisdom in those stories.
McClellan speculates that those slaves would be pleased to know that we still tell their stories.
"Except we don't," he writes. "We're censoring them now, and we're doing so on behalf of the descendants of the storytellers."
McClellan asserts — correctly — that there is nothing racist about the term "tar baby," that it is a much better, much more accurate analogy for what is happening in Libya than "swamp" is.
"It describes a matter in which you thoughtlessly but intentionally involve yourself and from which you cannot extricate yourself," McClellan writes. "There is nothing quite like the term. You can wander into a swamp, or stumble into quicksand, but you don't do so willfully."
There's nothing even remotely racist about it.