3 NSFW Words

We all speak differently in different contexts. At a PhD seminar, I am less likely to refer to someone as a cotton-headed ninny muggins as I am when leading a children’s address at church. We also write differently. Thus, when my dad sends me a text message it alwys lks like dis, but when he writes an angry letter to a local politician, you can be damn sure it fits every single criteria of the most formal style guide.

When you want to be your most articulate and clear, there are some words you should avoid, or at least use only with the utmost precision. I want to propose that the following words should be added to this not safe for work list. They are:

    Medieval
    Puritanical
    Enlightenment

Medieval
I most recently heard the word medieval bandied around when everyone decided that ISIS was a thing we had to have an opinion about. ISIS were “barbaric”, and it followed quickly in most cases, “medieval”. Here’s a recent example from the most mainstream of mainstream media, the British Daily Mirror.

This is wrong from both ends. The first problem is that the aggressive “Islamic Jihadist” groups that so obsess the Western imagination in this generation are the definition of modern movements. This fact has not been hidden from us. There is even a book which gives it away in the title:

John Gray

The organisation of these groups, their means of propaganda, their ideology – they are all inconceivable in an age before the one we live in now. They are not medieval.

If it is true that Islamic State (or whatever group we are told to hate next – Boko Haram?) are not medieval, it also holds that the medieval is not Islamic State. The Medieval era, a phrase filtered more through Game of Thrones than any knowledge of history, was not some dark era of barbarity. Even the dark ages cannot be characterised as without light. Even without reminding you that we all live in glass houses (the medievals, after all, never dropped atomic bombs, built nuclear power stations on tectonic fault lines, systematically starved entire nations to suit a political vision, or conceived of Celebrity Big Brother), there is much in the medieval era that is to be celebrated.

We cannot manage to agree to stop shopping even one day in the year, but the medievals tried to stop war a couple of days a week, every week, every year. The medievals made advancements in maths and philosophy and theology and statecraft, governance and art and cuisine that we take for granted today and they didn’t have those HAZMAT suits when there was an outbreak of the plague. We build shite public art on motorway verges. They built something like this in practically every market town around Europe:

Winchester Cathedral

Unless you are writing about epochs, don’t use the word medieval.

Puritan
I most recently saw the word “puritan” being mis-used over the #nomorepage3 campaign. This reasonable effort to convince a bestselling British tabloid newspaper to stop putting topless women on the third page of their daily publication has met with plenty of bile online. Here’s a representative sample.

While I want to live in a world where everyone has already read Marilynne Robinson’s essays, that is not where I live. I can understand that the religious and cultural flowering that occurred in Geneva in the generation after Luther, centering in part on Calvin, and then spreading to Scotland and Holland and America and South Africa, and all sorts of other places would be poorly understood. Like everything, there is much to be critiqued, repudiated, even reviled in what followed in Reformed Christianity and the puritans play a chief role in that.

But to equate the puritans with a set of anti-carnal antipathies, such that the word becomes a token for body-hating joylessness is a tremendous adventure in, well, the sort of hard-of-hearing interpretations of other people’s actions that might carelessly and erroneously be called… puritanical.

Of course the puritans were not libertines. They were not bohemians. They were not hippies. But they also were not joyless. They did not repudiate the body, but celebrated it as God’s good creation. A recent post by Jason Goroncy features the grand-daddy of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, waxing poetic about spiders as wonderful and intricate things.

If puritanical means that which resembles or arises out of the complex and fertile web of Christianities that get categorised as Reformed, then you are using the word right. If you mean it to just be a place holder for “these things I don’t like”, then you might be better off saying “these are things I don’t like.” Because if you got to know the puritans, you’d start liking them.

At least a little bit.

Enlightenment
The final word is different from the other two. Medieval and puritan are not safe for work because popular culture tricks you into using them to be synonymous with all things negative. There is much about the medieval era and the puritans that leaves us shaking our heads, but it is nothing but chronological snobbery to let that elide into pure and unfiltered dismissal.

The word enlightenment is not safe for work because popular culture can trick you into using the term to be synonymous with all things positive. There is unfiltered embrace of anything “enlightened”. The problem with this is obvious. The Enlightenment – that philosophical movement of the 18th Century that sets the mood music for modernity with its challenge to us: “Dare to know!” – is an inheritance we need to critically embrace. As with everything that is wholeheartedly embraced, it is politically dangerous. If something is good, across the board, then anything that can be cast as a threat is bad, across the board.

Speaking of which, here’s Britain’s most respected closet racist, Richard Dawkins.

If the Enlightenment becomes synonymous with “our way of life”, then when Richard Dawkins decides that something is threatening it, that thing becomes a threat to our way of life. In our day, Islam is the thing that is anti-Enlightenment. In the 20th Century it was often Judaism. In the 18th Century, it was often Catholicism. Whatever is against it, needs to be destroyed.

That’s one of the problems with the Enlightenment. It universalises everything. Since “reason” is the grand foundation of all advance, and reason is shared by everyone, then whoever doesn’t share the reason of the Powers That Be is not a person. The Englightenment has been genocidal. We can grant that it has had a significant role to play in the forming of “our way of life”, but that means it has a hand in drones and their deployment, in “enhanced interrogation” and its use, in colonialism, imperialism, and the insane (were they “rational”?) civil wars that the West fought in the early 20th Century and which we call, with Enlightenment hubris, “World” wars.

Pay attention and you will hear lots of wise pundits worry that we the Enlightenment is under threat. This is meant to be a very bad thing. Previous eras didn’t feel quite so confident compressing human existence down into eras, but if they did, I imagine there were wise pundits stroking their beards when “feudalism” was under threat. Times change, we change, ideologies change. At least hold them at enough of a distance that when they go stale, they aren’t the only thing left to sustain you.

In other words: don’t build your house on Enlightenment foundations. Dawkins might actually be right. They are crumbling. And that is not such a bad thing.

Your Correspondent, As hard and as ruthless as a rose petal

2 Replies to “3 NSFW Words”

  1. Thanks. This is helpful articulation of why these words are nsfw. I remember reading Steve Rose’s analysis of Islamic State’s media savvy in The Guardian a couple months back. The picture that emerged was hardly medieval. To my mind, the usage of this word smacks of an attempt to create distance, as in claiming some evolutionary moral superiority. We’re the enlightened ones, they’re in the dark ages. When in fact (as you point out) this misconstrues the meaning ‘medieval’ in the first place.

    Could I make a suggestion about another word that might fit on the nsfw list?

    Biblical.

    This adjective is thrown around so often in Christian circles, often not meaning “of, relating to, or being in accord with the Bible” (to use MW’s definition) but as some sort of emphasiser or theological shorthand. Ours is not just the gospel, it’s the “biblical gospel.” However, so in many Christian arguments, most of the voices are claiming to be “biblical” in some way or another.

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