Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Microsoft Word and Describing People

I love Microsoft Word, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And one of the many things I love about Word is how you define paragraphs. There’s your normal style, and then there are the others.

Now let me say a word here about “normal.” That poor word takes a lot of flack about what it does and doesn’t imply. I know that in the Autism/Aspergers community, that word has been replaced by typical, as in there are people with typical brains and autistic brains. This word is used because to them “normal” implies that anything else is abnormal. So for them there’s neuro-typical and neuro-atypical. But “normal” doesn’t have to imply that anything else is abnormal. It can mean something that you regularly do, as opposed to something that you only do on occasion.

This is how Word uses “normal.”

Your Normal paragraph style is all the settings that you use most of the time. Right now my normal consists of a single-spaced, fully-justified paragraph in 10-point American Typewriter font, with a left-hand tab a quarter-inch in from the margin. My Normal style used to be the same thing, but with Comic Sans as the font; and before that, the font was Tekton.

I can go into Word and redefine Normal anytime I want, so that when I start a new document, it comes up with the setting that I think I want to use most of the time.

Now here’s where things get fun. You see, I can also define other paragraph styles…things like Double, or Quote, or First and Second…and the great thing about them is that I don’t have to define them all from scratch. I simply define them by how they’re different from Normal.

For example, my Double style is Normal, but with double-spacing instead of single. My Quote style is just like Normal, but with a half-inch indentation from the left and right margins, and an additional left-hand tab three-quarters of an inch in. Do you get the picture? Your Normal may be different. You may prefer Times New Roman for your font and absolutely hate fully justified paragraphs, but when you create a new style, you’re still defining it by how it’s different from what you Normal-ly use.

All of which brings us to people and how we describe them…or rather, how we agonize about not describing them.

If you’re looking for Conan O’Brien in a crowd of 200 people, the first thing you’re going to say is that he has red hair. That immediately eliminates most of the people in the room, and makes it easier for people to help you find him. Red is not a color hair that you normally see. It’s not an abnormal hair color like green or purple, it’s just atypical…outside of Ireland…and as such, it helps you to narrow things down so that you can find her faster.

So then why on earth is it that we try to avoid describing someone as being black, or Asian, or Hispanic, for fear of being called racist? Why is it that some people even think that’s racist in the first place?

It’s not. The definition I grew up with of racism, back in the 60s, and the one I still hold fast to is the belief that some races/ethnic groups are inherently better than others, that you’re in the better group, and that gives you the right to keep the others “in their place.” That’s racism. As a librarian, I have a perfectly good term for when we describe people based on what they look like: cataloging. And cataloging helps you find the book you’re looking for.

OK…so I can hear some of you saying now, “Then why don’t we describe people as white? Why do we only mention it when they’re not white?”

We do…and it all depends on what’s “normal” where you are. Back in East Orange High School, we would’ve described my friend Ruth as “the white girl,” because EOHS was 99% black, and that was our Normal. I wouldn’t have bothered describing Rhonda as black, because just about everyone was. Instead, the first thing I’d say about her was that she was short.

When we avoid describing people by things that are obvious, we’re not doing anyone any favors, we’re not making some sort of symbolic stand against racism. We’re actually making it hard to find the person we want.

For the sake of clarity, I think that we should dispense with the attempted “political correctness,” learn to just call a spade a spade, and be done with it.

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