April 08, 2013

What’s worse, many of these politically charged terms never seem to achieve stasis. Over the past generation there’s been a ballooning expansion of terms such as “€œracism,”€ “€œsexism,”€ “€œwhite supremacy,”€ and, the granddaddy (sorry”€”Earth Mother) that supposedly spawns them all, “€œhatred.”€ Yet if you dare to ask anyone for a concrete definition of such terms, they”€™ll consider you automatically guilty of all the cultural sins these derogatory terms are intended to describe. As US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously explained, although “€œobscenity”€ may not be readily defined, you”€™re supposed to know it when you see it.

And if you persist in claiming that neither do you know it or see it, these words will be used as hammers to pound you into submission. In the sort of foam-flecked hyperbolic insanity that seems to suggest a culture either ready to implode or finally yield to ideological totalitarianism, you will be accused of ranting, slamming, bashing, and scaremongering merely for asking questions”€”even if you ask them in a timid and sincere voice without a wisp of malice.

Curious about how the AP defines other hot-button terms that are flung around like ape feces in modern political discourse, I bought a subscription to their online stylebook. Not only was I disappointed that I didn”€™t find anything resembling a comprehensive “€œbook,”€ I also found the site extremely user-hostile. I found zero results after searching for the terms “€œwhite supremacist,”€ “€œhate crime,”€ “€œdemographic genocide,”€ “€œpostjudice,”€ “€œEurophobia,”€ or “€œsocial engineering.”€ There was, however, one hit for “€œracist”€ under their “€œStatement of News Values and Principles”€:

We take great care not to refer readers to Web sites that are obscene, racist or otherwise offensive, and we must not directly link our stories to such sites.

For an organization that prides itself on linguistic precision, you”€™d think they”€™d at least offer definitions for what constitutes things that are “€œobscene, racist or otherwise offensive.”€

Nope. I guess you”€™re supposed to know it when you see it.

Undeterred, I called their online help center and spoke to a genial man who said his name was Mike. I told him I was having trouble navigating the site and wanted to know how the AP defined the term “€œracist.”€ Mike seemed surprised that he couldn”€™t find a definition in the online guide. He asked for my phone number and assured me that an expert would call me back.

At press time, I”€™m still waiting for that call.



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