Wednesday, June 5, 2013


I am in Istanbul. During my first night,  struggling to sleep over my jet leg, the mullah's cry for prayer came at 4:30 am through loud speakers from what seemed a mosque outside my window.  Startled, and suddenly aware of my strange surrounding, I was half awake when the smell of baking and diesel joined in the cacophony intruding onto my senses. Disoriented I tried unsuccessfully to go back to my fitful sleep. Enough! I got up, showered and headed out into the predawn darkness.

My fondest memories of traveling is watching a city awaken. There are the street cleaners brushing the debris of the night's commerce, the slow clamoring of shop metal roller doors and the frantic pace of the drivers conveying bread, milk and other essential produce for morning businesses. And you are ignored at that time of day. Either you have not gone to sleep and heading home, or you are homeless. I am neither and both. Waking up with the city I join the multitude of stray dogs and cats in the city that are also shuffling around in the predawn light. They leave me in peace as we both go about witnessing the energy of another day.

I notice that most of the dogs have their ears tagged (but none of the cats) and I store this observation  away for a question to ask. I feel accomplished this morning. I love questions, and usually they are better than the answers because they have so many possibilities, while answers are by their character, exclusive and limited.

Wind forward a week and on one of my tours, a Canadian woman asked that same question, and I told her what I knew. Istanbul city is tagging thousands of stray dogs in the city with microchips as part of efforts to ensure that the animals are healthy and pose no threat to city residents. You will also see that residents leave dog and cat food to feed these city residents. It is not about ownership but about coexisting. They don’t wish to take ownership for the animals or offer them homes but they do go out and buy dog food. They set up little dishes outside their stores and apartments. There are even established dog (and cat) drinking fountains on the street. Some 25,000 stray dogs are now being tracked with microchips, with the aim to include all 40,000 stray dogs in Istanbul. And, I added, which is better than killing them as we do in the States.

This is how the information was stored in my mind. She seemed disturbed by this and said "No we don't" Which in turn startled me. I stopped walking. She and her husband stopped walking. And I explained my thinking. These old, dirty and often maimed animals would be picked up by the county or city in north America and put in a dog pound. They both nodded. The small, young, and healthy dogs might be adopted. So what happens to the rest? Well yes, we all agreed that we euthanize them. That is the word they used. Yes, we kill them. That is the word I used.  For the rest of the tour I did not see these well meaning Canadians. And it made me think about the words that we use and why we use specific ones.

I have been reading--on the simultaneous recommendation of two friends (on the same day)--the Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Grower. He has a philosophy of writing in plain words. Use the simplest word for what you are trying to convey. "Dead" for me is as simple as it gets. I realize that my mind works at many levels but it stores information in the lowest denominator which is why I can decide on a course of action fairly quickly. I understand the nuances   but I see the structure much clearer than the subtleties of meaning.

Which is why I started to think about euphemisms. A euphemism is usually an innocuous word or expression used instead of a more direct word that might be seen as offensive or unpleasant (euthanize vs kill).

Words help in creating stable mental pictures. We use these pictures to build thought. This is how we organize our world internally. And we use this view of reality to interact with the world. Euphemisms blur the edges of these mental pictures. They are less offensive and unpleasant. They are words on prozac.

We do not have to place events or issue perfectly together because the edges are malleable, changeable.  It is similar to having fuzzy pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Although the sharp, exact and unique pieces in a jigsaw puzzle are cumbersome and time consuming to match, once they are matched they fit perfectly. On the other hand, fuzzy pieces are easier to piece together but the outcome is always incomplete. Euphemisms are fuzzy mental pieces that help some people to live without questioning a complex world that we live in. But the hard edges are what define reality (the jigsaw piece).

In the USA we live in a sea of euphemisms. We never say you are a liar, you are stupid, I hate you, I want to kill you. We never say steal, corrupt or dead. Black, Arab, Jew,  short or fat.

The euphemisms we use instead cloud our thinking. To the point that we are not sure what is right and wrong because the words we use are without form. Political correctness is one issue. We are so conscious of trying not insulting anyone that we use words that have no meaning. Words that are nonsensical.

African American is one such word. I teach a class on diversity and I use this as an example of a useless euphemism. I ask my students what is an African American and no one says that it refers to black people in the US. They say things like having African origin, speak an african language or ancestors that came from Africa. So I say OK. Lets assume that I speak Arabic, is the arab language an African language? OK what if you or your parents lived in Egypt or Morocco, does that make them of African origin? An affirmative answer is guaranteed. I have been teaching for three decades now. So I am an "African American" I say proudly standing in front of them, arms wide open and white as they get. And they laugh (sometimes). So why am I not an African American? And then comes the real answer, because I am not black.

African American is a euphemism for having black skin. We want to use the color of our skin to distinguish people but we do not want to say that. Which is why these terms are racist. In another example I have written about ageism and we see euphemisms as a way of denigrating sick older adults. You will find examples of such negative euphemisms everywhere including at the place of work. But what I am interested in, is how it changes how we behave as a people. The psychology of euphemisms. But that is another story. Today I learned that there is another protest in Turkey and this is not to do with Occupy Taksim Square. People are protesting a draft law that plans on rounding up and relocating stray animals to specially created "natural habitat parks." But the Turkish people are not quiet ready to accept such euphemisms, yet.

1 comment:

  1. So is a "natural habitat park" a place where it is kill or be killed? I might assume.