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Posted by on Feb 11, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 13 comments

Elephants and barbarians

I’ve signed this petition requesting that Thailand ban its ivory trade, which provides an avenue for the sale of smuggled ivory from African elephants killed by poachers. Please have a look at it and consider whether you are sufficiently persuaded to sign the petition yourself. I became aware of it through Richard Dawkins’ feed on Twitter, which is often a good source of information about worthwhile campaigns.

I’m not a fan of histrionics over what people say on Twitter, often to fairly small audiences. For example, my own number of followers is now a little over 1600, but the number of people who read any given tweet is doubtless a small fraction of that, and the number of followers has grown even in recent months – it’s not that long since it was only a few hundred with only a tiny number reading any particular tweet. It’s beyond me why anyone would make a fuss about anything I’ve ever said to such a small group of people.

In short, I seldom comment on what I see on Twitter. My general philosophy is that what goes on Twitter stays on Twitter. Something similar applies to interactions on people’s Facebook profile pages.

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins has hundreds of thousands of followers, and doubtless thousands read each of his tweets. When people with very large numbers of followers – in six or seven figures – have things to say on Twitter perhaps it is of some public interest. Dawkins got into trouble with a few people – quite a few – when he published a tweet with the words: “Greedy barbarians slaughtering African elephants.” He started getting replies accusing him of colonialism, racism, dehumanising people, etc.

Words such as “barbarian”, “barbaric”, and “barbarous”, whatever their etymology (which I’m well aware of) are ordinary English words to apply to someone who is uncultured, destructive, brutal, coarse, callous, etc. Whatever other meanings remain, this was clearly the force of Dawkins’ comment. It had nothing to do with dehumanising anybody.

Really these attempts to police the English language – to an extent that eviscerates it – have to stop. That doesn’t mean that no words at all are to be avoided (I have my little list), but most of them are fairly obvious. Beyond plain racist insults and a few other special categories, it can get ridiculous. It can reach a point where we are so busy worrying about whatever case can be made (by fanatics or obsessives) against our word choices and sentence structures that we’re left paralysed.

Good liberal people should not have to walk on eggshells when engaging in ordinary, day-to-day communication, for fear that some usage will attract a flimsy charge of racism or something of the kind. If you’re really tempted to make such a charge against a person who plainly is not motivated by racism, maybe you should think for a moment about what you are trying to achieve. Maybe ask what else you could do, perhaps something more constructive, with that little part of your life.

  • I saw that when it happened and it was so utterly dumb. Most people when they hear the word barbarian probably just think of Conan, anyway. There is a crowd of whiney PC enforcers that take everything Richard tweets and casts it in the worst light possible so they can feel self righteous about calling him on it. They aren’t doing anything. They need to get lives.

    Also I signed the petition and I hope no matter what anyone thinks of Richard and his word usage, they did too.

  • I wonder how many people who complain about “barbaric” being racist actually know the origins of the word. And while Plato and Aristotle did not exactly preach an ethic of universal concern for all humanity, I’m not exactly sure you’d call their attitude towards “barbarians” (i.e. non-Greek) racist.

  • See also, etymological fallacy:

    When we look, we shall find all of our words are rooted in other eras whose values we may find reprehensible.

  • Well written… I was appalled at the ridiculous attempts at censorship by some Twitter users.

    These people appear to have a inability to see the context of a word, or to allow words to be used to add meaning, impact or poetry to a sentence. Their own blinkered existences leads them to think they can dictate how others use the English language.

  • Chill Chick

    Dawkins also got taken to task today for talking about a “histrionic woman director.” I think some people assumed that “histrionic” is related to “hysterical”, which it isn’t. Mind you, it seems a little odd to put “woman” in front of a profession in this day and age. Perhaps it’s a habit of the older generation, who were less used to seeing women in professions.

  • Excellent and much-needed post, Russell. As you say, these attempts to police language use are pointless, ridiculous, and often shut down interpersonal communication before it even has a chance to begin.

  • I read that tweet differently. I think he was referring to two people 1) a woman and 2) a director, but I could be wrong:

  • Mike W

    I remember reading “Shakepeare’s Bawdy” when I was at high-school which covered off all the innocent words we were learning in his plays, which had highly risqué connotations and denotations. No one thinks twice about these words now.

  • Mike W

    Every time I look at a comment thread on gay marriage or homosexual rights there is a brigade bemoaning the loss of the word gay, and its “theft by the homosexual nazis/stazi/thought-police etc” yet none of them seek to reclaim fruit, faggot, nancy, queer, etc.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, exactly.

  • Elephants are being killed by poachers and people are more concerned about whether poachers are labeled in a way they think is racist? Perfect example of skewed priorities.

  • Chill Chick

    Now that I look at it again, I think you’re right.

  • DrewHardies

    These complaints seem like a public performance. People want to play at activism. Useful work is hard. So, we get feigned-outrage as an excuse to start a ‘discussion’.

    I’m really glad people are pushing back against these smears.