Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2011 / 10 Adar I, 5771
The Death of Civility: Fadspeak's Latest Victim
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | It's happened before. The politically correct among us take a perfectly good word and prate on about it till they bore everyone in sight. They may even turn it inside out so that it becomes the opposite of what it once meant. Then they wonder why the word they've finally driven into the ground has lost all its power.
See what happened to diversity, which was once a good, simple enough concept. But that was before the word-killers got their hands on it. First they turned it into a shibboleth, then an obsession, then a way of creating not diversity at all but a quota system embedded in law, faculty appointments, fashion and everything else. Instead of a diversity of opinion, they wound up preaching uniformity. Until eyes now glaze over at the very mention of the word.
Diversity came to mean a color-coded, gender-determined, by-the-numbers system. Complete with papers to be filled out in triplicate. Fail to award tenure to a sufficient number of left-handed, redheaded applicants of the transgendered persuasion, and a school could find itself in a heap of trouble. All right, I exaggerate. But not by much.
The word Diversity became odious as it developed into a synonym for a different but just as rigid form of discrimination. And people stopped using it, or paying attention to those who did. Because it had lost its original meaning. Some imposter had taken its place.
Much like a currency that's inflated, words can lose their value, too, and people will stop accepting it. Soon anyone with an ear for the language will reject some words as meaningless.
Maybe that's why you don't hear much about Diversity any more. Not outside press releases and political speeches. When you do, you can almost see people tuning out.
Much the same thing happened to Affirmative Action, which was seen through soon enough.
Sometimes a fine word like Justice will be tweaked a little -- so it becomes Social Justice, which is quite a different thing, a socio-economic agenda instead of an ideal, as in Justice for All.
In the end, words that once served a useful, uplifting purpose become sad little depressing things lingering on the edge of meaning, used mainly to advance some group's own interests. Soon it ceases to be a real word at all. It becomes just a blunt instrument good for nothing but beating one's opponents over the head. The way Fascist and Communist were reduced to just a general term of opprobrium. Racist is following the same, sad course. Overused, it loses any usefulness.
A once good word can go from obsession to occupation, becoming a whole industry in the process, a way to make a good living out of a once noble cause. It can become a legal specialty, or maybe something for sociologists and psychologists to charge for. Soon enough we get things like workshops in diversity or civility, often enough "facilitated," that is, manipulated, by a paid professional.
There's nothing like a mandatory discussion group led by the usual social worker/do-gooder/earnest volunteer to kill all interest in an idea, however fine it once was.
Now much the same devaluation is being visited on Civility. It was once a useful synonym for manners, for consideration for others, for observing the forms of propriety even if the barbarian inside all of us would prefer delivering a good, solid right to the jaw. Civility is a word akin to civilization itself. But now, day by day, we can watch it being transformed into one more piece of meaningless murk.
After every bitterly contested election, the call for civility is renewed. And while it is usually accompanied by a pro-forma appeal for all to be more civil, it doesn't take long before it becomes evident that all are not created equal in this respect: Some need to be more civil than others -- and they're usually those on the other side of the political, social or cultural divide. Civility really needs to be saved from those who keep demanding only others practice it, which isn't civil at all.
Another way to rob a good word of meaning is to deprive it of any force. For example, make civility synonymous with just weakness, with holding back one's opinion rather than expressing it in the most civil, and therefore all the more forceful, way.
Civility is an aristocratic style that needs to be preserved in a republic lest it degenerate into just another mass democracy, complete with demonstrators who don't think so much as chant: Diversity! Civility! Hope, Change, Audacity, Etc.!
It is impossible to be insulted by someone who just rants and raves, marching in circles and thinking the same way. It is polite, reasoned, civil criticism that really stings.
One of the best arguments for civility, the real thing, is that it sharpens criticism by delivering it gracefully, exactly, on point. The way a stiletto strikes home. Incivility is just another verbal ax anybody can use. It requires little precision and less thought, and American politics already has quite enough of that kind of thing, thank you.
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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
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