The Naming of Things

"The Thinker"

In Old Possums Book of Practical Cats the first line is “The naming of cats is a difficult matter.”

I’ve been thinking of naming conventions ever since I found a hint of bias in myself. Have you ever had one of those moments where you look at a thought and it terrifies you? I did when I realized I was reordering words.

I have a friend who identifies himself as an Arab-Muslim American. In my head I reordered this to be a Muslim American of Arab descent. I was lying in bed one of those sleepless nights and wondered about this. Why would I do this? And what was going on in my head that I would find this necessary?

I talked to myself for many hours that night and decided there was something going on. I don’t call Hispanic American’s American’s of Hispanic decent. So, how does this work and why has the naming of American’s become an issue.

I talked to a few friends and found that they had been exposed to the same thing I had. Media outlets that talk about Muslim American’s and wonder why they don’t put American first.  

While pondering this I came upon two examples of countries that place their Nationalism in front of their Religion.

When I was traveling to England in the 80’s and 90’s terrorism was an issue from the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Irish folks defined themselves as Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants. Religion last… Nationality first.   

I’ve been reading Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Lebanese, like the Irish, put their nationality first and their religion last. Lebanese Shi’a, Lebanese Sunni and Lebanese Maronites.

You might think that this makes them more patriotic. After all as Fox News would say they are putting their nationality first. But think about this… we are talking about Ireland and Lebanon two countries devastated by internal strife and terrorism.

It’s basic grammar.

Lebanese modifies Shi’a making Shi’a the noun and Lebanese takes on the role of adjective. Remember adjectives modify nouns. Yet somehow, in the US, this basic grammatical relationship has been blurred when the word Arab is placed with the word American.

The media should know better.  

I am a English-Irish-Scottish-Welsh-Scandinavian-Atheist American. No one would think to question my commitment to my nation. English to Atheist modifies American. I am defining the subset of who I am, the set, the whole is American. In the same way any Muslim American, Arab American, Chinese American, Catholic American, and Jewish American are.

This is my polite way of saying STOP IT!

If this subtle internal bias has made its way into my head, with my limited exposure to the media and my baseline lack of bias, what is it doing to everyone else?  

I have done nothing to earn the privilege of being an American except be born here. But every man and woman who serves in our military and works to protect us has. They put being American before all else.

It is such a subtle distinction that is being made but it is insidious and dangerous.

If you find it in yourself take it out, look at it, acknowledge it for what it is and let it go.

If you find someone else doing it politely explain the grammar behind our naming convention and remind them of what happend in Ireland and Lebanon when they became adjectives modifying religious nouns.

~ Tess


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