Many years ago, one of my sisters brought a boyfriend home to meet the family. I can't remember whether the subject of dinner-table discussion was literature or music, but my mother said: "I like people with catholic tastes." My sister's boyfriend reddened. He said that, as a Protestant, he found my mother's remark offensive.
Awk-ward! My mother, of course, was using "catholic" (small c) in the nonreligious sense, i.e. "including a wide variety of things; all-embracing."
Mom faced a dilemma: Apologize and leave my sister's boyfriend in a state of ignorance that might be exposed later (maybe by someone less kind than she) or patiently explain that "catholic" doesn't always refer to the Roman Catholic Church. She chose the latter course.
I was reminded of this long-ago exchange when I read about the criticism movie director Quentin Tarantino received for using the word "ghetto" when he accepted the Golden Globe for best musical score on behalf of Ennio Morricone.
Here's what the helmsman of "The Hateful Eight" said:
"Wow. This is really cool. Do you realize that Ennio Morricone, who as far as I am concerned is my favorite composer — and when I say favorite composer, I don't mean movie composer — that ghetto — I'm talking about Mozart, I'm talking about Beethoven, I'm talking about Schubert, that's who I'm talking about."
"Even when you're a white person who demonstrates some level of appreciation or affinity for black people and black culture — you're still white," Clifton wrote. "You don't get a free pass to play around with the words, phrases and experiences that reinforce the marginalization of black people."
Clifton acknowledged — as he had to — that the word "ghetto" has a broader meaning, but he said that was no excuse.
"Although the conventional academic understanding of 'ghetto' [is] an urban area confined to members of minority group," he wrote, "that's not what the term means in most everyday usage, and it's not what Tarantino meant in the context of his acceptance speech."
Conceivably Tarantino was making a distasteful play on words by linking the idea of a "ghetto" of movies-only composers and the street putdown "That's ghetto!" But that seems unlikely if you understand that "ghetto," like "catholic," has several meanings that extend beyond "an urban area confined to members of minority groups. " The word can refer to all sorts of closed communities.
For decades social critics have used the term "the Catholic ghetto" to describe a clannish mind-set that characterized American Catholicism before the Second Vatican Council. (My sister's boyfriend may have been reacting to that stereotype when he took offense at my mother's comment.) The G word is also used to describe the insularity of college professors. Almost two decades ago, the Times Higher Education Supplement asked: "Is there an escape from the academic ghetto?"
This isn't the only recent example of inappropriate offense being taken based on a simplistic interpretation of a word with multiple meanings. Harvard recently stopped calling the leaders of its residential colleges "master" because some students apparently misperceived it as having some connection to slave masters.
On the presidential campaign trail, Jeb Bush was faulted for saying, in a reference to immigration and cultural diversity: "When you create pockets of isolation, and in some cases, the assimilation process has been retarded, it's wrong. It limits people's aspirations." (You can almost hear Beavis — or was it Butt-Head — giggling: "He said 'retarded.' ")
That Bush was pounced on for this wording is ridiculous. Zack Beauchamp of Vox was right when he wrote: "The Jeb Bush 'retarded' controversy is everything wrong with gaffe journalism." But, as the Tarantino and "master" controversies demonstrate, the problem extends beyond news coverage of politics.
As my mother might say, people need to adopt a more catholic appreciation of the complexity of language. And they'll have no incentive to do that if their ignorance is indulged.