OUR age may be characterised as the age of euphemisms. In some circles the use of politically correct expressions has been developed into a fine art.
Foreign students are now called international students; the blind are politely referred to as the visually
disabled, the lame the physically disabled; the Third World has become the Two Thirds World, etc. Advocates of political correctness are quick to point out that foreigners, handicapped, Third World are all demeaning terms and should be substituted by more uplifting expressions.
In the past, people generally did not think much about things in this manner, that is, whether words carry positive or negative connotations. Words were used to name people and things as accurately and economically as possible. The Oxford English Dictionary meaning of the word “foreigner” is simply “one belonging to another country” – a pretty innocuous description. Now, however, people are extremely sensitive about what words connote. Yet it has not occurred to anyone to ask how those terms have come to carry these negative connotations. Connotations can change drastically, depending on the circumstances.
There was also a time when “foreigner” carried awe-inspiring connotations especially when referring to a colonialist. “Native”, on the other hand, was a derogatory term (and still is, except when used to describe non-humans, e.g., native plants). How then has “foreigner” come to acquire a negative connotation in our day? In our changed circumstance, the uncomfortable answer is that “normal” people have not treated the foreigners (or, for that matter, the handicapped and the poor) as fairly as they should. They have created the situations in which foreigners are viewed negatively, such as through stereotyping.
I am not saying that foreigners themselves have not contributed their fair share to the problem, but it seems that providing them with a more dignified title is hardly the way to address what is at bottom a deeply moral issue. In fact, what this switching of terms does will only exacerbate rather than alleviate their plight.
First, it gives us, the “normal” people, a feeling that we are doing something for them when in fact nothing much has been done to change their situations. Second, the euphemism may provide a temporary salve for our guilt-stricken conscience, but it will in time take on the same negative connotations as long as our attitude towards the people we give those elevated titles does not change.
I suspect that it will not be long before “international” goes the way of “foreign” if our treatment of them does not improve. Already we are seeing words like “immigrants” and “refugees” about to go the way of “foreigners” and “Third World” given the bad press the former have been receiving all over the world in recent years. Before long, our experts in the use of politically correct language will insist that they should not be referred to as “immigrants” anymore, but by some such phrase as “trans-cultural permanent visitors”.
What is needed is not cosmetic change. The foreigners and the handicapped are not helped by being given a more sanitised, innocuous name. Changing names is a most painless way of dealing with a basically moral issue – by side-stepping it altogether.
I would like to make two suggestions, one practical and the other theological, to replace this futile word game. First, let us not be apologetic about these negative-connotational words. We need to retain them, if only to remind ourselves of our failure to deal fairly with the people to whom these words refer. If the word “foreigner” continues to sound uncomfortable in our ears, let us humbly accept it as a divine indictment on a too comfortable church. For if our attitude and treatment of these foreigners change for the better, the word might in time lose its negative connotations.
Second, we simply must come to terms with what we profess about the church. The root of the problem is the failure to be the church. We live in a world in which status, power and “national interest” set the pattern for all human relationships. But the church is called to live by a radically different pattern. It is the community created by the triune God where the differences between slave and free, men and women, locals and foreigners, healthy and handicapped are transcended in Christ (Gal. 3:26-29).
The Rev Dr Simon Chan is Dean of Studies at Trinity Theological College and spiritual adviser of Herald Assembly of God.