Guest columnist Jim Palermo: A safer world for euphemisms

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Published: 9/8/2023 4:59:57 PM

We are not doing our kids any favors by raising them to be too hyper-sensitive to flourish in a very cruel and hostile environment. The truth is that while we can coerce people to behave in a certain way, we cannot coerce people into believing as we believe, or to adopt the social or moral values that we embrace and cherish. Thus, sometimes, being hurt is inevitable.

In fact, the paradox is that while we find satisfaction in our correctness, magnanimity, tolerance, and charity toward others, we are often viewed as being offensive: “Who are they, coming here to tell us how to be like them?”

Several years ago, I went to John M. Green Hall to hear Barbara Ehrenreich talk about her book “Nickeled and Dimed,” in which she chronicled her experiences when she disguised her identity as a well-to-do, upper middle-class writer to work a series of minimum-wage jobs. Much to Ms. Ehrenreich’s surprise, and to the shock of most people in the audience, a woman, when called upon, identified herself as a Smith student, and then passionately explained why she found the book to be insulting.

The student’s mother worked many minimum wage jobs so that her daughter would not have to, she said. As I recall the incident, the student seemed to assert that Ehrenreich made no effort in her book to capture the nobility of the people like the student’s mother — treating her adventures self-centeredly, as I sometimes regard people returning from Caribbean cruises who rave about the attentiveness of the obliging staff members who catered to them, while omitting any mention of the poverty that surrounded the luxurious resorts at which their every need was met.

I believe we in the middle-class are priming our children for victimhood by emphasizing what is “special” about them: displaying “My child is an honor student” bumper stickers; exaggerating their athletic prowess; or teaching them that no social slight is too insignificant to ignore. On the other hand, we may instill victimhood by being overly concerned about a child’s appearance, style of dress, weight, or inability to qualify for AP classes.

And horror of all horrors! What if our child does not want to go to college? (Insert scary music.)

To some extent, I might just be an octogenarian grousing about the way the world has changed from what it was in the good old days. But I believe I have followed the advice of the brilliant social critic and historian Christopher Lasch, who cautioned against being nostalgic about the past by failing to recall its ugly aspects.

He insisted, however, that there was also much good that we should strive to preserve, not the least of which was a sense of community: a sense of place and belonging. There is not sufficient space in any one article to fully explain what scholars have struggled to explain about Lasch, except to mention that one of his approving reviewers once described him as “a radical conservative.”

David Brooks recently invoked Lasch in a New York Times opinion piece titled “Hey, America, Grow Up!” [Aug. 10], identifying him as being among the scholars who recognized the emergence of “the therapeutic culture, that “often turned people into fragile narcissists … made them self-absorbed, craving public affirmation so they could feel good about themselves.”

Brooks goes on to explain the rise of “safetyism,” which he defined as “the assumption that people are so fragile they need to be protected from social harm.” From this swamp there emerged the concepts of “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions,” which caused many people to see “trauma” as “their source of identity.”

Symptomatic of the new “safetyism” is what I call the “Sacrament of Euphemism,” in which atonement for one’s racism, elitism, judgmentalism, prejudice, and homophobia — you name it — is achieved through the use of sanctioned words. For instance, a convict is now a “justice-involved person;” a homeless person is now an “unhoused person;” and individuals may insist that they be referred to by plural pronouns. As George Packer notes, “The whole tendency of equity language is to blur the contours of hard, often unpleasant facts … good writing — vivid imagery, strong statements — will hurt, because it’s bound to convey painful truths.”

Facing painful truths in literature and in history should not be a source of guilt among people with no responsibility for the sins of our past. But facing reality is essential to our ability to have empathy for those who suffered, and continue to suffer, because of the sins of our predecessors, and the sins of those among us today who fail to recognize that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Calling homeless persons “unhoused” will not remove the barriers that prevent them from being able to afford rent. Calling an individual person “they or them” may actually identify the person as being different, rather than being a person whom we are called to love, include, honor, and respect, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Some nights, before going to bed, I do an “examination of conscience,” using the “Prayer of Saint Francis” as a guide. Have I been an instrument of peace? Have I countered hate with love? Injury with pardon? Doubt with faith? Despair with hope? Darkness with light? Sadness with joy? And each time I do that, I reach the same conclusion: I have a lot of work ahead of me.

Jim Palermo lives in Southampton.


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