Imagine you’re at a nice social event: drinks are passed around, you’re amidst friends and new, amicable strangers. Your friend introduces you to one of her friends. Imagine, like me, you have a very uncommon name for those here. You introduce yourself.
I can replay this scenario, because it’s happened to me 3,456 times.
A blank stare. “Ah, well it’s nice to meet you.” (Worse when it’s on the phone because you receive nothing but silence.)
“-It’s Tauriq, actually… No stress on either syllable. Tar as in road. Rick as in short of Richard. Rhymes with ‘stick’.”
Now, most people get it here or eventually come to pronounce it properly, after they’re surrounded by those that can (I have smart friends who, when realising their friends are not getting the pronunciation, say my full name instead of pronouns and say it loudly). This is typical.
However, imagine someone said: “No, I prefer to say Toreek. It’s easier for me.”
This isn’t my name and I have no reason to respond to this. I hope no one would think I was being unreasonable to politely request the person not call me that, since that’s not my name. Now, imagine this person persists.
“Oh, I know that’s not your real name or how you want me to pronounce it, but since you’ve given me little to no way to actually pronounce it, I’m more comfortable using this term to refer to you.”
What’s to stop me from calling my new friend Mr Blubberfish? I prefer Blubberfish to Michael or whatever and its more memorable. I’ll see Mr Blubberfish at social events and I will yell: “Hey, Blubberfish!”
I’ve provided fairly simply means to pronounce my name. If you can pronounce “tar” and “rick”, you just need to put those words together. I’m not asking to learn a new language.
Imagine I express consistent disapproval of mispronunciation. “This is not my name, please don’t refer to me as such.”
Mr Blubberfish – I mean Michael or whatever – says “everyone seems to get offended about something nowadays! We have become a hypersensitive society. Toreek is much nicer sounding than Tauriq any old day!”
Like me, I hope you think this is a strange, rather bullying response – my view doesn’t matter, nor that I’d rather not be referred to as “Toreek” taken into account. This doesn’t mean there aren’t people who don’t mind or who call themselves Toreek. But I am not one of them and therefore you are not referring to me, by this name. You might as well be calling a rock a shoe because it “sounds nicer” or is “easier to pronounce”.
The real comment
That previous comment response however is based on an actual comment concerning the use of the term “prostitute”, over the term “sex worker”.
“Everyone seems to get offended about something nowadays! We have become a hypersensitive society. Prostitute is much nicer sounding than sex worker any old day!”
Sex worker rights, like gay and women’s rights (among many other causes), is an area of concern to me for many reasons – primarily because sex workers are unfairly treated, viewed as non-persons, due to backward policies and a stigma around (paying for) sex and a consistent fear of women’s autonomy. I have friends fighting this cause, too: Many of them have indicated their preference for the term “sex worker”, and/or that they find the term “prostitute” offensive.
This could be for a number of reasons. For example, the association with “prostitute” as a verb, which is usually pejorative and degrading.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s not hard, nor does it appear to serve much purpose in continuing to call sex workers prostitutes when they’ve requested you not do so. Furthermore, by calling them sex workers you can find out whether the term prostitute is offensive later. Erring toward less offensive terms matters, since it shows we care about the impact our words have and that we’ve taken into account those who are the unfair targets of malicious attacks and dismissal.
Compassion and censorship
The comparison to my requesting my name be pronounced properly was meant to bring out the disconnect people have between showing respect towards others and cries of PC, censorship and tone-policing.
We ought to all recognise that words and the use of them really do matter: they’re the tools by which we convey our beliefs, opinions, etc. They’re often our only way to judge the threat or friendliness of another – aside from behaviour. If you think words don’t matter, ask anyone who’s been brought to various stages of anxiety, depression and suicide from online bullying, vicious misogyny, racism, etc., from complete strangers who have done “nothing” but send mere pixelated words. We’re not all Samuel L. Jackson, we’re not all emotionally-anchored and surrounded by the rocks called loved ones.
To claim “censorship” over “compassion”, PC over politeness, is to only reinforce that you don’t actually care about language and, therefore, the other person; it’s to continue weaving the cocoon of solipsism that’s being pointed out, preventing you from actually acknowledging someone that’s not you or like you. This doesn’t mean unnecessary censorship or policing of words or phrases doesn’t exist: mockery of religion, politics and ideas – even monarchy – resulting in bans or firing is problematic.
But it’s fallacious, black-and-white thinking to claim that any time, anyone requests you not say or refrain from saying something it’s censorship: This shows you don’t recognise nuance in a complicated world; you fail to acknowledge that different things require different responses even if they appear – at first glance – the same.
Yes, sometimes we can claim “PC gone to far”. But we must recognise that language isn’t a free for all, just as beliefs aren’t a free for all. We live among others who actually need to live with the consequences of stigma and pejorative terms. Ask them what they prefer – it’s not hard and it shows you actually care, like any decent person. And if your right to “free speech” matters more than marginally, minisculely trying to make someone more comfortable – which would not impede anything you’re doing – then perhaps you need to reassess why you’re engaging with others at all.
NOTE: Not that it matters, but my name being refused proper pronunciation is not based on any actual incident. No one has rejected the pronunciation of my name; just been unable or forget to pronounce it.