In my seventh-grade Latin class, 30 years ago in Dallas, only one of my classmates was Black. When we learned the noun servus—the root of English words such as servile, service, serf—one of the white students instinctively defied the textbook definition and translated it as “servant.” Servus puellam amat. “The servant loves the girl.” The lone Black student let this translation slide once, then twice, before bellowing, “SLAVE. It means SLAVE.” He was right. That was the translation in our book, and in ancient Rome, a servus was most likely not a freely contracted guy who answered your Craigslist ad, but a human being owned by another. The moment was uncomfortable, and usefully so: No one made that mistake again.
Euphemism is (as the kids say nowadays) cringe, and never more so than when it is the official policy of institutions that have power over others. Texas recently entertained a particularly nauseating modification to its school curriculum, a doozy of a euphemism in much the same vein. According to The Texas Tribune, an advisory panel proposed that chattel slavery be taught to second graders as “involuntary relocation.” (In this season of disrupted air travel, involuntary relocation sounds like a term of art a gate agent might use to tell you that you are stuck in Detroit indefinitely but now have a $10 coupon to Chick-fil-A to relieve your suffering.) The Texas board of education sent the proposal back for reconsideration, thus demonstrating that certain ideas are too crazy even for it.
The panel has not explained its rationale, and did not respond to my request for one. But other policy changes in Texas schools hint at how such a phrasing might have come to be. Proposed legislation in Texas has forbidden lessons that might make students “feel discomfort” as a result of their race. One way to keep students from feeling discomfort is to remind them that they are not responsible for the crimes of others. Another is to describe those crimes in reassuring tones, to diminish their criminality—which might soothe some students, while making others queasy. The panel’s recommendation is consistent with the latter approach.
Texas Senate Bill 3 provides further context for the recommendation. One provision forbids teachers from teaching the historical interpretation offered by the 1619 Project, which identifies slavery as foundational to America, rather than as contrary to America’s “founding principles” of “liberty and equality.” (The bill also requires students to learn about Frederick Douglass, who beheld this controversy with enviable clarity when he likened American ideals and American government to a ship and a compass: “The one may point right and the other steer wrong.”) Involuntary relocation could originate from 1619 partisans trying to give teachers more freedom to discuss slavery by avoiding that politically loaded term. (The 11-member panel that recommended the term does not, on first glance, look like a neo-Confederate deep-cover group. At least two of the nine members are Black, and five others have Latino names.) Such an end run around the prohibitions would nonetheless, regrettably, suggest that slavery was some kind of traveler’s woe, rather than a crime against humanity.
If you flinch at code words like this, I urge you to apply your mental reflexes—which, congratulations, have not gone extinct—equally to similar instances of euphemism and periphrasis. For several years, an institutional trend has led other entities, including The Atlantic, away from the word slave and toward enslaved person. The reasons for enslaved person are articulated succinctly on a website of the National Park Service. The word slave, it says,
suggests that the individual’s identity was more fundamentally as property than as a human. It can also suggest that the person accepted their enslavement as a definition of their own identity. Additionally, it leaves out the presence of an enslaving individual or group whose ability of enforcement through violence backed the system of slavery.
But describing someone as a slave does nothing to diminish their humanity. Enslaving someone diminishes their humanity, which is why one should not do it. Straightforwardly describing a crime in no way reduces its victim, let alone suggests that the victim had it coming or liked it. Finally, I am baffled by the suggestion that slave somehow erases the existence of the slavemaster, as if one could exist without the other. In the long history of the term, no one seems to have been confused on this point. Even if the word slave had any of the alleged effects, enslaved person is no better. In fact it’s worse—needlessly longer, and bizarrely introducing the suggestion that some of those enslaved are not persons (otherwise why specify?).
Equally misguided reasoning extends to other categories: not homeless but people experiencing homelessness, not Jew but Jewish person. The theory seems to be that the longer the noun-phrase, the more affirming of the maligned individual’s humanity. The extra verbiage pads an odious concept like Bubble Wrap, protecting those it makes uncomfortable from direct contact with the offending material.
But it also protects the offending material from the scrutiny it deserves. The delicacy and preciousness of the phrase enslaved person, if it really did center the humanity of the slave, would be untrue to the nature of slavery itself, which banished the humanity of all involved, about as far away as a practice could. If slave is a bitter word to hear, then the word is doing its job, and should not be sweetened. Involuntary relocation is a sprinkle of Splenda on slavery, and I hope never to hear it again from a teacher, gate agent, or anyone else.
I asked my classmate what he thought of all this. We had not corresponded in decades, but he wrote back fast. “Ne fratres mei credant mendacium, eos in veritate custodio, sicut amor dictat,” he wrote back: “Lest my brothers believe a lie, I keep them in the truth, as love dictates.” The Texas board of education might consider this line as a new motto.