Friday, December 01, 2006

Eskimos of the Desert, ch. xxiv

Yet another example of how deeply implanted a false meaning can become when it comes wrapped in a successful sort of cultural generalization. This one's from an organization that ought to know better (OK, you could argue that the NYT ought to know better too, but its offenses in this category tend to be restricted to feature sections and their attempts to be cute and literary):

Iran issues fatwa on Azeri writer
One of Iran's most senior clergymen has issued a fatwa on an Azeri writer said to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

How come a mainstream news organization can use an obscure word in hed and lede like that? Because everybody "knows" what it means:

The call on Muslims to murder Rafiq Tagi, who writes for Azerbaijan's Senet newspaper, echoes the Iranian fatwa against Indian writer Salman Rushdie.

Trouble is, "fatwa" doesn't mean "call on Muslims to murder a writer." It means "answer to a question about religious law." This widespread subsitution of meaning caught hold within a few years of the Rushdie matter and more or less died down around the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But it's obviously never gone away, and it won't until editors start throwing stuff at people who misattach this particular set of wires.

How does this sort of stuff come about? For the same reason the thing about the Eskimos never goes away. Talking about people's language is a hugely effective backhanded way of generalizing about their culture; as Geoff Pullum put it, the “quintessential demonstration of how primitive minds categorize the world so differently from us.” The Eskimos have 6.023x10^17 words for "snow"; Muslims have a single word for "religious death sentence."

Journalists more or less started this one, and it'd be nice if we were the ones who stopped it too. Murder as a form of literary criticism is barbaric. Let's go ahead and raise hell about that and the sort of attitudes that feed it. But let's do it without the unnecessary cultural baggage.


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