October 29, 2007
As members of the human race, we look to our capacity for language to elevate our communication skills above all other members of the animal kingdom. Civilizations are separated by archaeologists based on their languages and their ability to create sophisticated writing systems for recording the spoken word.
Creating words to say what we mean has inspired the thesaurus, where subtle connotations can dictate the use of one particular synonym to mean exactly what one wants to say. Every fifth grade teacher has struggled to expand the vocabulary of budding writers. How many times does a student use “pretty” in her story when “gorgeous, comely, lovely, ravishing, sightly or elegant” would paint a better picture?
Costume designers and actors can create ten different people who are “rude” based on the author’s choice of words. He may be rude…but is he audacious, bold, brazen, cheeky, forward, impertinent, insolent, disdainful, nervy or sassy?
The sophistication of our language points to the premium we place on communication. Whenever a relationship is deteriorating, the first place we look to is the couple’s ability to effectively communicate. Almost seven million…six million nine hundred and fifty thousand, to be exact…links are reported by Google search engines looking for “improving communication in relationships.”
With so much emphasis on improving communication, it defies human intelligence to understand the logic behind the decision of the California legislature to retract language back to caveman status. This month Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 777 into law. When it takes effect it will prohibit any instruction or school-sponsored activity that would promote discrimination against gender. That means terms like “mom and dad” and “husband and wife” cannot be used in California textbooks because they suggest that heterosexuality is the norm.
“Suggest”…to hint, to imply…that heterosexuality is the norm…this is a bad thing? If we are not to consider the particularity of our sex, then why does every form we fill out have two boxes for us to check…male…female. One imagines “neutral” forms of the future where we instead will check either…human…or…other.
This restriction of communication comes at a particularly interesting time in human civilization. More and more boxes have been added to the forms we fill out, an attempt to fully communicate whether we are Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, Pacific Islander, American Indian, Eskimo, Asian…or for lack of specific descriptors for our origins…Other.
This attention to diversity is required even for second graders and is a headache for every teacher who must help thirty seven-year-olds to properly record their ethnicity in less than an hour. Librarians are guided by diversity to ensure that their choice of books includes stories for every ethnicity and representing cultures worldwide.
Now, suddenly and legally, under the terms of SB 777, diversity has become a bad thing. No longer can children be exposed to women and men who are moms and dads inside of marriages where they committed to one another as husbands and wives. And why?
Because this form of diversity is offensive to people who have chosen not to express their heterosexuality in traditional ways…people who describe themselves as homosexual, gay, lesbian and transgendered. Depending on your choice of words, this conundrum is either puzzling, confusing, challenging, mysterious or problematic.
Even as we keep giving people more and more ways to describe themselves, we are taking away the ability of children to describe their moms and dads. We are asking children to ignore the fact that their moms and dads are husbands and wives.
Do we think that by legislating language that children will fail to pick up on the heterosexual realities of the world they live in? Do we think that requiring children to describe the adults in their homes as parent, parent or parent, will keep them from noticing their parents are of different sexes and wear wedding rings?
What has happened to the premium we place on honoring diversity? Honoring different ways of living? Honoring cultural values…even if they are the values of the very culture we live in?
With so many words to say what we mean, to describe the variety of life around us, what in the world has led us to make laws removing words from the dictionary for the very purpose of not saying what we know is true? Dear Governor Arnold, if you can find the proper words…say it isn’t so.