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unamerican words

January 6th, 2004

Stephen and I where having dinner last night and talking about this article [ paulgraham.com ] titled ‘What You Can’t Say.’ Basically it talked about how many things we are told by various people (political parties, religious groups and other peoples in power) that we should not say may in fact be true and that these people do not want them said for fear we will realize these things are true and counter to what they want us to believe. Anyway, the author points out that an easy way to find such things is to look at how they are labeled — saying something is ‘false’ is a statement of fact (whether you got your facts right is another story) but when we are told something is ‘blasphemy’, ‘sacrilege’, heresy’, ‘indecent’, ‘improper’, inappropriate’ or ‘un-American’ then we should examine why these labels have been applied. Perhaps the people applying them feel threatened by these things?

The one label that really gets me is ‘un-American.’ And the quickness with which people label things as ‘un-American’ — especially politician and most especially since September 2001. I cannot think of any thought or idea that is ‘un-American.’ Now everyone has a right to free speech and therefore a right to label things as they see fit — even ‘un-American’ but I can’t comprehend it. It is our duty, as Americans, to question the things our government does (it is our complacency in this duty that tends to get us in trouble — but that is another rant.) Not only is it the right of every American to think and speak anything we wish (we are for some reason not allowed to say things like “I’d like to kill President Bush’ — but I think that if I want to SAY that, it should not be illegal) but it is our most precious and valuable freedom. Embodied in the first amendment to the Constitution — the very first entry of the Bill of Rights. So if the right to speak your mind is at the core of being American how can anything any American say be ‘un-American?’ Anti-American, yes — un-American, no. Impossible.

3 Responses to “unamerican words”

I’ll bet that one line of that post got you a file at homeland security…

I did not get to finish the article, but I think he is way off about taboos. I think that in the case of taboos that cause an absurdity in culture, it comes from trying to aviod a genuine problem by drawing the circle around it too big. However, one must consider that in many circumstances the slippery slope does exist and than nipping problems in the bud early before they become problems is important. It may seem perfectly normal if you or I tell a student that he or she has a nice shirt. I can howeevr imagine that these words could carry an entirely different connotation if said by someone with different intentions. With respect to children, we present the world to them in black and white because children first think in black an white. I recently read a book called “The Tipping Point”, which talks about a child’s need to be able to make unambiguous judgements about things before they are able to take the next step to understanding the contextual meanings of words and things and to understand that a word can have two meanings and different meanings in different circumstances. First they need to internalize the fact that thier is a taboo and then they can learn how big the circle around it should be.

Well, that was an essay… I hope everything is going well. It is snowing here, but I know they won’t close the Uni :(

Oh! And I also wanted to say that as someone who does believe in progess, to say that only the universal taboos hold true is wrong, especially because that would justify racism, and probably also many forms of murder… murder is not taboo in our country if the state does it, and murder is not so very taboo in many cultures, it just depends on the justification…

As to murder — that has never been a taboo, all the major kingdoms/empires and religions of the west have blessed state/religious condoned murder. So ‘murder’ in a public fashion and public forum has never been murder in the west. (thought I personally don’t think their is a difference)

Also, I think by not reading the entire story you missed a lot of the meaning. He is not saying that taboos do not have their place in society, but that by blindly accepting them we may be blinded to the truth in many cases. The example he used was Galileo. The Church said it was heresy to say the things Galileo said, today we know them to be true, but Galileo spent many years in prison and under house arrest because he spoke about against the taboo.

While a KKK leader standing up screaming about non-whites in ways we consider taboo may not be a good thing, it is, over all a good thing to examine and question taboos.

My point in my post was that many times we are told are something is taboo by religion and politics in the US it is because those institutions do not want to face the effects of us thinking about (or acting) against their beliefs. Claiming something is blasphemy’, ‘sacrilege’, heresy’, ‘indecent’, ‘improper’, inappropriate’ or ‘un-American’ is a way to destroy something you don’t agree with, without allowing others to make up their mind for themselves — it’s a scare tactic.