Monday, February 06, 2006

"Sophisticated" is the new "Civilized"

From savages and brutes emerged tablas rasas. From primitive emerged native. From nomadic emerged colonized. From infidel emerged ritualistic. From backward, emerged unmodern. From historic emerged timeless. From uneducated emerged unenlightenmened. From Mahometan emerged Terrorist. From unscientific emerged unindustrial. From undemocratic emerged developing. From agrarian emerged inefficient.
And now, we've added a new word: SOPHISTICATED.
I remember one of my favourite history professors at Syracuse during my undergrad. During freshman year, my Professor invited me to his home one night to have dinner with him and his wife. I had earlier mentioned that I was Muslim and that sparked a conversation because his son had married a Muslim girl, which of course led to a conversation about the challenges of inter-religious and inter-racial union. Well to make a long story short, I went to his home and found that he had prepared a non-halal dinner, which I sort of assumed he would understand knowing his familiarity with Islamic dietary restrictions. He also offered me wine and beer, which I don't drink either. When he realized what was going on, he said, "I'm sorry I didn't realize because [my daughter-in-law] and my son don't maintain those dietary restrictions; they're pretty sophisticated."
In my classes at Boalt, we use the word to describe corporations who have in-depth knowledge and legal expertise, as compared to the common-folk. We use it to nonchalantly describe people who are poor and/or uneducated. We use it to describe people in other countries who have "developing" or virtually broken legal systems. It's clearly used as a way to distinguish politics, power, class, education and status of several kinds.
How many times are we going to keep changing our vocabulary without learning some kind of a lesson? Are we really this stupid to not understand what we mean when we say sophisticated? This is not a lesson in political correctness--that is--my point is not necessarily that "sophisticated" offends people and should never be used. It's to say that political-correctness makes no sense if all people do is bury the same feelings into another, harder to detect, vocabulary. It's not the word, it's the idea behind it.

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