Words (and Peppers) Matter

Dried spicy red peppersMy colleagues have discussed on this blog the significance of labels many times, such as labeling something a restoration, a gang sign, and Paleo, or simply as something different. This concern for the significance of labeling, though, is not limited to the strategies of marketers and politicians or everyday observations. The selection of identifying labels often reinforces the dominant discourse, even when apparently not intended.

Rereading Fred Clothey’s Religion in India: A Historical Introduction (Routledge 2007) for my Survey of Asian Religions course, I noticed a significant example of the power of labels that I had missed previously. One passage in a section on Cochin Jews caught my attention this time.

When Cranganore was razed in 1524 by Islamic marauders, the Jews scattered, most of them settling in Cochin. There they were caught in the colonial battles between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

While Clothey’s book generally highlights the complexity within the Indian subcontinent, including the diversity within each community and the historical shifts leaders have promoted, often with multiple motivations, the selections that Clothey made in this passage require a second look. Beyond the choice of the term “marauders,” he identifies the Europeans only by their nationality, while the “marauders” and their victims are identified only by their religion. Other options existed, as some accounts of the events in Cranganore, for example, have labeled the initial attackers also as Arabs or Moors. Following the natural impetus of a scholar of religion, he also could have labeled the Portuguese and Dutch as Christians or even Catholics, making their conflicts intra-religious disputes over control of an area, rather than a national dispute.

Of course, not everyone working with the Portuguese or the Dutch would have considered him/herself to be devout Catholics, and economics, particularly the lucrative spice trade, motivated many, we assume. The same complexity, though, exists for the communities labeled as Muslims and Jews, but his choice of labels hides that complexity, at least to many readers. In fact, the historical narrative suggests that the incident began with a dispute over, wait for it, the spice trade. A merchant identified as Muslim/Arab/Moor was accused of corrupting the pepper, a matter of economic significance. After the initial accusation, the conflict escalated between the two communities. While the communities appear to have had distinct identifications at that time, the source of conflict was not something that we commonly label religious today.

To be fair, Clothey is not presenting a polemic against one community or an effort to stereotype a community as violent or victims. Throughout the book he demonstrates the complexity of identifications and the shifting boundaries of practice across time, points that I deeply appreciate. His selections, though, reflect and reinforce particular assumptions about minority communities in the US. We often generate greater distinction and nuance for communities more like the majority (European, predominately Christian), while broader religious labels work for those who are less familiar to the majority. The more specific national labels also allow the majority who identify as Christian to distance themselves from the violence of colonialism.

Perhaps what is most troubling to me is the subtlety of the choice of labels. His choices reinforce dominant narratives of difference in ways that we often do not realize as we read, or even as we write. That is the power of discourse.


Photo credit Pink Sherbet Photography from USA (En Masse Dried Spicy Red Peppers) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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