Culturally Corrupted Connotations – Ignorance, Tolerance, and Discrimination

An attempt at a discrimination graphic.

Writers have a thing for words. That may be stating the obvious, but it is more complicated than saying carpenters have a thing for wood or geologists have a thing for rocks. A better comparison may be to say that artists have a thing for paint, more accurately for color. The combination of the right colors makes all the difference in the painting just as the use of the right words makes all the difference in the writing. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” If I tell an artist to paint the sky blue, it may be too general a request given the many shades of blue in the sky, but the artist knows it is not to be red or brown. But what if in my mind blue does not mean a color but an emotion? That may confuse things a bit for the artist.

Language changes, for better or for worse. Cultural influences, societal influences sometimes bend the connotation of a good word in a bad direction. Words can take on an emotional charge by connotation that they do not have by original definition. I call it culturally corrupted connotation. Here are three words I believe have suffered that fate.

Ignorance. Will Rogers famously said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Taken in that proper sense, the word suggests an absence of knowledge rather than a state of idiocy as it is often intended. How the word devolved to that state I can not say, but the language does not benefit from the change. There are certain subjects about which I am content to remain ignorant. To be called ignorant should be no more pejorative than to be called innocent. Unlike idiocy, ignorance can be eliminated by enlightenment (alliteratively speaking). Ignorance can be a bad thing or a good thing. Ignorance concerning the steps to perform good hygiene is a bad thing. Ignorance concerning the steps to assemble a hydrogen bomb is a good thing (for the rest of us). Be thankful for a certain level of ignorance in your fellow man.

Tolerance. In engineering, the term relates to a precise set of limits. In physiology, it refers to a reduction in the level of effect. In the physical or social sense, the word is meant to reflect the practice of allowing the existence of something of which one dislikes or disapproves. The cultural connotation seems to have moved to an expectation of acceptance and approval rather than an allowance for existence. Whether applied to religious opinion, sexual orientation, or a bad smell in the neighborhood, the definition of tolerance is the same. The very idea of tolerance is that the object is not acceptable in one’s eyes (or nose in my example). I can not say that I tolerate apple pie, because I do not disapprove of apple pie.  I can not approve of my friend’s bad jokes, but I can tolerate them. The culturally corrupt connotation of tolerance is that I am now supposed to not only permit the existence of the thing of which I disapprove, but I am supposed to actually approve of it. That view of tolerance will always produce what has been termed the paradox of tolerance–that those who expect acceptance rather than tolerance become themselves intolerant of those they deem intolerant. They become the very thing they disapprove of in others. True tolerance is a charity born of convictions not an absence of convictions.

Discrimination. Here is a perfectly good word that suffers from a perfectly negative connotation. Do I discriminate? I do so intentionally every day. I discriminate between hot and cold in the shower, between sugar and salt for my cereal, between red, amber, and green at the intersection. One who can not discriminate, who can not tell the difference in things, is bound for trouble.

The almost exclusive connotation today relates to racial or ethnic discrimination, by which is meant racial prejudice, and which implies an unfair, unwarranted pattern of behavior–a bad thing. The culturally corrupt connotation of discrimination is that it is a synonym of prejudice. They are two very different things. This word that simply means to be able to distinguish between two or more things has become associated with behavior toward those things. It is no longer that I can distinguish the taste of salt from sugar, but that I must behave unfairly toward the salt shaker. The use of the word almost solely in relation to racial or other prejudice is as unfortunate as it is irreversible. To discriminate is to be perceptive, not prejudicial. Another decent word has suffered a bad rap.

I suppose this could all come under the heading of language conservation–the need for which can be illustrated by a conversation I had once with a man who employed me. He called me aside one day and said, “Dutch, you are ignoring me, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s ignorance.” Oh well…           

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