The Magazine

Sensitivity Alert

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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We’ve published quite a few criticisms of local “human rights” or “civil rights” commissions in these pages. And we’re going to keep at it, until they give up their Orwellian ways. Last week, Seattle city agencies received a memo from Elliott Bronstein of their Office for Civil Rights informing them that “brown bag” and “citizens” are offensive words.

“For ‘brown bag,’ try ‘lunch-and-learn’ or ‘sack lunch,’ ” Bronstein wrote. “For ‘citizens,’ how about ‘residents?’ (Our Citizens Service Bureau became the Customer Service Bureau a few years ago.) Just thought I’d bring this up. Language matters, and the city has entrusted us with the keyboards.” Set aside for a second the revealing demotion of citizens into “customers,” and ponder the appalling notion that “the city has entrusted us with the keyboards”—Seattle has a government agency that prides itself on telling people what to say.

In the case of “brown bag,” the usage being extirpated is obscure. As The Scrapbook discovered after some Googling, many moons ago—particularly in New Orleans—there were racists who would throw parties where the only African Americans to be admitted were those with skin color lighter than a brown paper bag. Meanwhile, a brown bag is self-evidently a brown bag. What rational person would assume that a “brown bag lunch” is racist?

The objection to citizens, by contrast, is regrettably predictable. “We sometimes use it as another way of saying ‘members of the public’—except for all the members of the public who aren’t actually citizens but who live and work here,” noted Bronstein. We’re guessing it’s not commuters and tourists that Bronstein is taking absurd precautions not to offend, but illegal aliens.

We’ll leave you with this comment on the matter from Joel Connelly, who covers city politics for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Language does matter—witness the recent excesses of Rush Limbaugh and various Fox News hosts—but isn’t the Office for Civil Rights trolling the far parameters of political correctness?” 

It’s telling that in Seattle one can’t simply point out the absurdity of government entities running around telling people what they can and can’t say without simultaneously lamenting that “various Fox News hosts” are allowed to speak freely.

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