Question: I drove by the Unitarian church a few weeks ago and saw a sign for “holiday trees.” I understand that Unitarians do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and so this made sense to me. I also understand that many atheistic Jews join Unitarian churches. On the one hand, I smiled and thought how inclusive this was. On the other hand, I wondered: is Christmas a holiday, or a time of year, or both?
I recently received a new politically correct “end-of year” greeting. Again, on the one hand, I absolutely love it. It is historically accurate, and it acknowledges that many ethnic groups celebrate New Year’s on different dates. For the Chinese, the New Year usually begins in February, coinciding with the lunar calendar. The Zoroastrians celebrate New Year at the spring solstice. And we celebrate our New Year, Rosh Hashanah, in the fall
From there, I started musing about the power of words. They can bring people closer or divide. When my twins return from college, they are constantly correcting my verbiage. They want me to use plural pronouns when my English teacher drilled into me that if you use a singular subject, you continue in the singular. They want me to use “Latinx” instead of “Latino/Latina” or “Hispanic.”
I understand that we want to make every person, no matter what their sexual identity, feel validated. I also understand that small changes in the way we express things are symbolic of major shifts in a society. They give an opportunity for discussion, and they call attention to real problems, but I find there is a fine line between “cancel culture” (which according to Wikipedia, is ostracizing someone and throwing them out of social circles after they say something politically incorrect) and bringing about a more equitable society. What do you think?
Answer: Certainly, as Jews, we are well aware of the power of words. We cringe when someone says, “Jew him down” or in any other way accuses Jews of being money-grubbing. We recoil at anti-semitic slurs, such as “Kike” or “Yid.” Feminists know the exclusionary power of gendered job descriptions, like “stewardess” or “postman.” Words limit our imagination.
The line between “free speech” and “inflammatory speech” is very thin. Currently, Neo-Nazis are spreading malicious lies about Jews under the protection of free speech. Reams have been written about this, and many court cases have tried to clarify the ambiguity.
The complexity of communication is that words convey emotions. Thus, each one of us has an opportunity to accept any greeting with the emotion behind it or the literal meaning of the words. We also have an obligation to understand how those words are received by the recipient, and it’s not always easy to get into someone else’s mind. Revolutions or changes in attitudes take time and massive social adjustment. “Word wars” are always better than guns, if you ask me. One has to consider both the intent of the speaker and the identity of the recipient, but we also need to understand the social context.
Sometimes, it is necessary to shut down inappropriate speech. Other times, it’s more appropriate and more effective to educate. Let’s take the ubiquitous bumper sticker: “Put Christ back in Christmas.” On the one hand, this is a lovely thought about keeping a day holy and getting away from materialism. On the other, for many Americans—Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims—who don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, it is indeed a wonderful federal holiday when families can gather. Many of us react to that bumper sticker as condescending proselytizing. Others shrug it off and agree that gift-giving has gone amuck.
The point is that calling attention to the many interpretations of even greetings is one way of bringing about change in society. If we truly want to be an inclusive society, we need to change our language too. Contrary to popular opinion, language is constantly evolving. Biblical Hebrew is not Israeli Hebrew, nor is seventeenth-century American English the same as the colloquial English of today. “Happy Holidays” is the product of this evolution, and who knows? “Happy Federal holiday and Gregorian New Year” may be the next iteration. It certainly has some merit and historical truth, though it will be hard for many of us to make the shift.
Some questions for you to ponder:
Can you use inclusive terms without shaming people?
When is a term so offensive that shaming is in order?
There are many ways to handle this, and one is taking the person aside and educating them. The other is knowing your audience: you can give the greeting in a language that would be meaningful to them.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.