Books can be the best Christmas gifts, at least in my humble opinion. I have already finished one novel that I received for Christmas, Singapore Exile Murders by F. van Wyck Mason. Written, published, and set in 1939, the novel incorporates the responses of Europeans and Americans in southeast Asia to the global events leading up to World War II, making it an intriguing historical artifact based on one person’s imaginings. As a piece of data, the language in the novel surprised me at points, including the off-hand use of terms for African-Americans and Chinese that would be considered offensive today.
Beyond illustrating how what is considered acceptable has shifted in the past 75 years, these problematic terms (by our standards) also illustrate the ways everyday language reinforces, even makes appear normal, social hierarchies. The ways that Europeans and European-American characters use these terms in casual speech places African-Americans (who do not appear as characters in the novel) in the position of menial, hard laborers and Chinese (who are primarily servants, rickshaw pullers, and the like) as clearly inferior. The condescending labels thus socialize people into particular positions of inferiority and superiority by making the hierarchy appear natural, simply the way things are. Continue reading “PC Power”
Being a basketball fan is almost automatic when you are born in Kentucky. As a Kentucky Wildcat fan, I certainly have enjoyed this perfect basketball season, but I have been a fan of the Cats in the less-than-perfect years, too. I even remember exactly where I was when Christian Laettner hit that infamous shot twenty-three years ago. If you’re over thirty and don’t know where you were when that dagger went through the heart of the Big Blue Nation, I am not certain that you can call yourself a true fan. Continue reading “Competing for Status”
Human dignity and freedom are two values that many people reference in contemporary society. Like other terms that are useful in political and societal debates, people maintain competing definitions of these two terms. One person’s assertion of human dignity competes with another’s assertion of individual freedom.
Disputes over a festival at the Kukke Subrahmanya Temple in Karnataka, India, last month illustrate this malleability and subsequent tension. During this festival, one group of devotees (identified as high status Brahmins) consume a meal, and then the remaining food and their banana leaf plates are spread on the floor. Other devotees (identified as low status Dalits and indigenous “tribal” people) physically roll across the banana leaves. One understanding of the practice fits into the cultural constructions of status and purity, as the leftovers of a higher status person are pure, even purifying, while the leftovers of a lower status person are polluting. Because of the socially recognized status differential between those who eat and those who roll on the leavings, some identify this practice as an affront to the human dignity of the participants, as it reinscribes on each group their respective status. An op ed in the Bangalore Mirror concerning the practice related it to sati (burning of widows on a funeral pyre), declaring that this practice “is disgusting in this era of science and progress.” Continue reading “Dignity or Freedom”