Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times put out a style manual that restricted the use of some words: "Indian," "Hispanic," "ghetto," even "inner-city," requiring "Native American," "Latino," and "urban" be used instead. But words themselves aren't the problem -- it's what is behind the words that matters. If we hate or look down on those with whom we differ -- by race, ethnicity, sex, religion, sexual orientation or political party -- even benign words can take on a hurtful meaning. It is rarely the words themselves but the context and intent that matter.
The desire not to give offense has even infected the literary world, as the recent controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn" illustrates. A well-meaning but foolish effort to replace the disgusting term "nigger" with "slave" in order to get the book past school censors deprives students from learning important lessons about both racism and the social mores of earlier eras. Diction in great literature tells us something about character, in both senses of the word, and tampering with it distorts the author's intent and interferes with the reader's understanding.
Does that mean we should ignore efforts by political figures or others to inflame passions by using hateful words? Of course not -- and that's what the efforts to bring civility to public discourse should be about. When politicians impugn the patriotism of those with whom they disagree or suggest that policy differences amount to moral failings, they coarsen politics. It would be a good thing if all of us, not just politicians and pundits, learned to think before we speak -- but being thoughtful doesn't mean we have to be bland.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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