Policing our language

I got together with some friends to play a game of Fiasco the other night. As the game-coordinator was explaining the rules, he said, “Okay, so half the dice are black and half the dice are white. During a scene, any one of you has the option to decide whether the scene concludes well or poorly for the central character — just indicate your choice by placing one of the dice in front of that character. A white die means the scene turns out well, and a black die means it turns out poorly.”

One of the other players interjected: “Could we please not use that color-coding system, where white means good, and black means bad?” The game coordinator quickly replied, “Oh, sure. Let’s switch it around.”

I understood what she was getting at, and it struck me as a case of political correctness carried to an extreme. People’s associations of white/good, black/bad pre-date any intermingling of white people and black people, so it seems absurd to attribute those associations to racism. A more plausible explanation is that the associations with white and black originated in the fact that the blackness of nighttime means we are colder and more vulnerable to danger than we are in the light of day. So this girl’s suggestion that the color coding system was offensive struck me, at the time, as overreaching.

But talking about it later with a friend I re-considered. Even if I’m right about the origins of the white/good black/bad associations, isn’t it still possible that those associations have a subtle impact on how we view white people vs. black people? If we’re used to associating white-the-color with goodness and black-the-color with badness, then is it so implausible to think we might unconsciously apply some of those associations to white-the-race and black-the-race, too?

The question also reminds me of the debate over gender-neutral pronouns. The idea of using “he” as the generic pronoun, to refer to a person of unspecified gender, has been accused of being sexist. Attempts to coin a new pronoun for use in such cases have so far been a failure (en? hir? hesh? hizer? hirm? sheehy?).

And my initial inclination is just to say, look, everyone understands that when we say “mankind” we mean all men AND women, and that when we say “fireman” we mean a firefighter of either gender. Right? I mean, why change the way we speak?

But now I’m a little more willing to believe that there could be a small effect of our language on the way we think. If the mental picture you get when you say “mankind” is of men, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think of women as incidental to the course of history? If your mental picture of a firemanr is always a man, then mightn’t you be more inclined to think men make better firefighters? Or to think it’s unfeminine to fight fires because you associate that activity with men (due to our language)?

I’m not even making the argument that this effect does exist, only that it’s a reasonable hypothesis. And I’m also not making the argument that it would be worth the trouble to rewire our language in the hopes of rewiring our brains. But I am acknowledging that it’s not entirely ludicrous, politically-correct histrionics to say that there could be a causal relationship between these words and our perceptions of the world.

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