Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: The dirty side of clean

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

The dirty side of clean

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stepping from the shower, toweling off and feeling clean, I hear the radio report that, I am warned, may be disturbing. Turns out it is about “cleansing,” too, but this cleansing is the killing of one kind of people by another kind of people, though, of course, how many kinds of people are there really? 

My father never said “kleenex” as others did when they meant some paper for wiping the nose. He pushed back against the trade name, said, instead, “cleansing tissue,” a construct that sounds, in retrospect, slightly archaic. That memory, and the pleasure of the bath and shower--especially when accompanied by fragrant soaps and gels and emollients--left me with a benign and even affectionate reaction to the word.

Then some decades ago the people killing each other in the former Yugoslavia started using it to describe what they saw as simply restoring their land to their kind of people. It sounded like a euphemism for “genocide” with its “final solution” overtones, and it gave me chills to hear it. It was used with quotation marks around it that you could see in print and hear in speech as a disclaimer--their words, not ours.

And then a strange thing happened. It started being used in news stories and public pronouncements not with quotation marks around it, not as naming an action being held up by the world as horrifying, but...kind of as an acceptable descriptive term. 

What happened to the quotation marks? 

I looked it up on that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and found that “Ethnic cleansing is not to be confused with genocide.” Oh horrors, no. I didn’t stop to read the fine print to find out that distinction. I went on. It was “initially used by the perpetrators during the Yugoslav Wars...by the 1990s the term gained widespread acceptance in academic discourse in its generic meaning.”

Well, if you want to get all nit-picky, ethnic cleansing doesn’t have to mean killing. It can also apply to various forms of forced migration (deportation, population transfer) as well as mass murder, and intimidation.”  The Final Report of the Commission of Experts (why does this sound as if I lifted it from “1984”?) defines ethnic cleansing as a  "a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas." A purposeful policy--sounds downright legitimate, doesn’t it? Wikipedia didn’t mention the quotation marks. 

I can accept murderous thugs figuring out a name for their activities, a way to rally troops, justify actions. What I can’t accept is that we and our news outlets and our public officials have adopted it and turned it from something chillingly reprehensible into...well....just another term with widespread acceptance in academic (and other) discourse.

I wish I had the influence to wage a one-person campaign on this. People, I want to say, listen to what you’re saying. Be careful with your words and recognize their power. These words mean something horrifying. Put back the quotation marks.



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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would make a good op-ed article in the Globe.

February 14, 2014 at 9:58 AM  

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