Necessary Intention

Following on my previous post, I have had further thoughts on the use of language.

Without intention, language has no meaning.

In my teaching I often refer to the Shahadah – the statement of faith that is the first pillar of Islam. Saying it publicly is a requirement for becoming a Muslim. I say it publicly all the time, but that does not make me a Muslim, because I have no intention of becoming a Muslim.

I can read the Liturgy aloud and this does not transform any bread and wine present, even if it is on the Holy Table, into the Most Precious Body and Most Precious Blood. Even if I was a priest, this would still be the case. Nothing would happen. There is no intent.

Likewise, I can use unacceptable language and if I do not have an unacceptable intention, it is not evil. I do not punish my children if they say a swear word that they did not know was a swear word. When they said it, it was nothing more than an association of sounds. Once they know the meaning and that it is unacceptable, then they are liable.

Thus we arrive back at the things we call people. Further to my discussion in the previous post about the historic inoffensive use of the word “nigger”, the very extensive Wikipedia article about the word is quite useful.  Nomi, a commenter on the previous post, has a very interesting article of her own how to refer those who are bi-racial. I won’t go into the historic terminology and whether it would solve her quandry, but as a bi-racial person, she doesn’t include it amongst modern options.

I don’t know if it unique to matters of race and ethnicity, but it seems strange that perception overrules intention, even when a term is used outside the vocative case. I’m not sure how a group of people with common genetic characteristics decide that certain terms can or cannot be used, and particularly how they change they can the value of a term from acceptable to unacceptable in a matter of a few years.

Because intentional language has meaning, I will usually not use the term “African-American”, unless I’m referring to Barack Obama. As I’ve said before, most black people I know are American Americans. Their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and almost certainly as far back as their great-great-great-great-grandparents were born in the United States. They are not ethnically African. There have been attempts by some to re-Africanise with the adoption of faux-African clothing, African language names, and made up holidays like Kwanzaa (the celebration of communist principles made up by convicted violent felon Ron Everett) notwithstanding, their culture is entirely unrelated to and does not measurably derive from anywhere in Africa.

If people want to use it to refer to continent of ancestral origin, then I’m happy to use African-American if I am also using European-American to refer to people who ancestry can be principally traced to Europe. I wouldn’t use it for myself, because almost all of my ancestors for at least seven generations have been in the United States. I have the odd English ancestor who immigrated in the 1820s or so, but by and large my ancestors were in the US (or what became the US) for at least a couple of generations prior. I could refer to my children as European-Americans, because they are dual citizens of a European country and the US.

I think language should be accurate and avoid intentional offense. I also think it is important not to try to find offense.

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3 Responses to “Necessary Intention”

  1. Black People, History, Language, and Identity « iNomi (the Blog) Says:

    […] posting it as a blog…but it is specifically in response to a blog written by Solomon Hezekiah (“Necessary Intention”) and probably won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read that blog. Just wanted to let you […]

  2. Nomi Says:

    Morning! Sorry so late – had a busy day yesterday.

    Anyway…you make some interesting points, Sol (a lot of them, actually) – thanks for the follow up to our previous discussion! I did comment but I had SO much to say that I decided it would be straight up rude to post all of that as a comment to your blog, so I posted it as a blog of my own. Sorry…this is to let you know where you can find my response.

    Thanks again for the discussion!
    Nomi

    Black People, History, Language, and Identity
    (my apologies if this link doesn’t work!)

  3. sol Says:

    I have left and equally long response. I wouldn’t have thought it rude for you to have posted your extended remarks here.


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