There are some smug omissions in the compendium of forbidden words that the Eastern Liberal Establishment is busily assembling in the wake of Jim Watt's laryngeal sins.
While assorted moral tone-setters are wringing their hands over the public utterance of "cripple" and "wetback" and even "homosexual" by Watt and other heathen, they happily go on preserving their own lexicon of pejorative stereotypes.
They are too numerous to list in their entirety, but they include Okies, Californians, Midwesterners, Moonies, hard hats, holy rollers, Bible thumpers, snake handlers, tobacco spitters, hillbillies, rednecks and a vast swarm of lesser freckle bellies and peckerwoods who roam the liberal landscape.
Within that larger context, blacks, too, continue to maintain their own specialized nomenclature, including such terms as "cracker" and, of course, "honky."
No one has suggested that eastern liberals forswear their favorite buzz words, but eastern liberals have not hesitated to instruct the Great Unbathed in that matter.
Critics washed Watt's mouth with soap for saying "cripple" when he should have said "handicapped." South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings was sent to the corner for using the word "wetback," even as a metaphor that reflected negatively not on Mexican laborers but on their bosses. Other critics continue their push for the replacement of "homosexual" with the symbolically more positive term "gay."
This tendency toward linguistic authoritarianism reached a peak recently when one Washington columnist called for the abolition of mother-in-law jokes. Is nothing profane anymore?
What about Jewish American princess jokes or Californian jokes? Are they to go next? There are even WASP jokes (Question: Why are Polish jokes so short? Answer: So that WASPs can understand them.) Will they, too, be sacrificed on the altar of vapidity?
If the word police get their way, a whole new range of references will be stricken from the language. "Codger," "crone" and "gaffer" would have to go so as not to offend the elderly. "Idiot," "lunatic," "moron" and "imbecile" likewise would certainly have to be excised.
Consider "Scotch Buy," the brand name for so-called economy products at Safeway markets. Does its name do injury to the Scottish people by suggesting that they are chintzy or close- fisted? Or, on the contrary, does it proclaim them as prudent and frugal? That is a decision that should not be left to the word police.
The peremptory condemnation of words, as words, leaves no room for considering the context in which those words are spoken. Yes, words--Scotch, nigger, redneck, WASP--may be said in insult or derision, but they may more often be said in irony or sarcasm, in pathos or in metaphor, with no intention of diminishing the person mentioned. In fact, the intent may be just the opposite: to exalt or uplift. To witness this, one need only hear the rousing speech of California Congressman Ron Dellums urging "black niggers and white niggers and brown niggers and red niggers and old niggers and young niggers . . . " and a host of other "niggers" to overcome their common plight in America.
Stifling the use of words as a protective gesture is unhealthy in two ways: it fails to eradicate the underlying hatred or scorn, if such there is, that the speaker may harbor for a category of people, and it reduces the richness of the language in which our thinking is embedded.
Jim Watt did not intend to insult Jews, blacks, women or handicapped people when he described the composition of his coal leasing study commission. What he did try to do, in his own artlessly sarcastic way, was to ridicule irrelevant tokenism in public service. Irrelevant tokenism is always worth ridiculing. Even the tokens would acknowledge that.
Come to think of it, Watt's coal- leasing commission probably still is not as broadly based as it should be in the best of Eastern Establishment worlds. It badly needs somebody's mother-in-law.