Last week’s episode of the excellent radio program This American Life dealt with the trouble that can arise when people say or do something that alienates their former allies. There were two main stories. One dealt with a “dyed-in-the-wool, glock-toting, blood-red Republican from Louisiana” who proposed a bill in the state legislature that would make the bringing of toy guns to school a punishable offense. She did this after the sheriff in her parish (which is what they call counties in that state) told her about finding a gun in a school that was so realistic that it took him several minutes of close examination to figure out that it was a fake. And yet, even though that could have had deadly consequence if someone else mistook it for a real gun, he could not charge the person with any offense because there was no law on the books that prohibited highly realistic toy weapons, though these are increasingly available. But even though her proposed legislation dealt purely with toys guns and said nothing about real guns, the gun-nuts went ballistic on her, accusing her of betraying the Second Amendment because she was contributing to the impression that guns are bad.
The other story was about someone name Laci Green who is (was?) apparently a well-known feminist on YouTube who started dating a right-wing troll and speaking well of him and his supporters and saying that they were not really bad people, leading to charges that she was betraying the feminist and progressive movements.
But what I found most intriguing was the short three-minute opening prologue where the show’s creator and host Ira Glass introduces the stories. This time he spoke about his surprise when he was working on a different episode and reading the transcript that had been submitted for that story. The reporter, who is not Jewish, had at one point used the word ‘Jews’ and Glass said that during a discussion with a producer and another young staffer, the other two literally gasped at encountering the word and said that calling someone a ‘Jew’ was no longer considered acceptable and could, in some circumstances, be even considered a slur. They said that one should instead say ‘Jewish people’. Glass said that even though he himself is Jewish and over fifty years old, this was news to him. The other two people were aware of the irony that as non-Jews they were telling him the proper way to describe him, but they were adamant that they would not use the word Jew.
Glass was not offended and tells the story in his usual droll fashion that made me laugh and you should really listen to it. But it struck a chord with me. When writing my blog posts or speaking with someone and it becomes necessary to refer to someone’s Jewish heritage, I try to find a way to write it as Jewish (like I just did) instead of just as Jew. I do not feel the same hesitation in referring to someone as a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or a Tamil or a Belgian. So why this discomfort with calling someone a Jew? No one told me that it was bad to do so. I cannot recall ever reading this advice either. I just acquired that feeling by some kind of osmosis. As the two young staffers told Glass, they had just grown up feeling this way all their lives and suggested to him that the different way they felt compared to Glass was a generational shift. Maybe it is like the terms ‘Negro’ and ‘colored people’ that some older African-Americans may still feel confortable with but younger people of every ethnicity know to avoid without ever being told.
In my own case, maybe the source of the discomfort goes all the back to my early exposure to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is the villain who is constantly referred to by others not by his name but as ‘the Jew’ and the word is definitely used pejoratively, as if labeling someone as such was sufficient to conclude that he is a bad person. That impression remains despite the powerful oration Shylock gives at one point where he appeals to the common humanity, both good and bad, that we all share:
“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
I am curious what readers think of this issue, especially the possible generational difference. Is this just another case of, to quote Shakespeare again, a rose by any other name (as Glass seems to think) and that I am overthinking this? Or is there something of significance going on here, as his youthful co-workers clearly feel?