2012-02-22

Uncommon Tantrums over a Common Era

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by Tim Widowfield

English: A hungry baby yelling and crying.
Image via Wikipedia

People get upset over the strangest little things. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, I recall the fervor with which his administration tried its best to “undo the horrors” of the Carter years. For example, almost immediately they ripped the solar panels off the White House roof and set aside plans to move the US to the metric system. I suspect they didn’t really hate solar power or particularly love feet and inches; they just hated the people who advocated those policies.

When you see people throw tantrums over seemingly unimportant things, you start to look for the underlying issues that the indicators signify.  Of course it’s no mystery why fundamentalist Christians have been howling over the switch from AD (Anno Domini) to CE (Common Era) and BC (Before Christ) to BCE (Before the Common Era).  For them it betokens the erosion of Christian supremacy in our culture.  It indicates their loss of dominance in national affairs.  And besides, they hate change.  That much is understandable.

However, what are we to make of a non-believing, free-thinking professor who jumps on the bandwagon? Dr. Richard Carrier is last person I would have to expected see rending his clothing and sitting in sackcloth and ashes over what is essentially a simple unit of measure. He doesn’t just dislike the change in nomenclature — he hates it. Carrier tells us that CE and BCE “should be stuffed in a barrel filled with concrete and tossed to the bottom of the sea.”  Wow.  That’s the sort of vitriol I reserve for really important evils, such as flavored coffee or misplaced apostrophes. What’s the hubbub, bub?

In his 26 January post B.C.A.D.C.E.B.C.E. Carrier explains that they’re “dumb” and “newfangled.”  All right, then.  The former is a judgment call that I’ll set aside for now, but what about this charge of goldurned newfangledness?  Well, dagnabbit, according to Wikipedia the expression “Common Era” goes back at least to 1708.  (That’s 1708 CE.)  If you perform an advanced book search on Google, you can find many references to CE and BCE in books published in the 19th century.

In fact, let me draw your attention to a work by Morris J. Raphall published in 1856 — Post-Biblical History of the Jews; from the Close of the Old Testament, about the Year 420 B.C.E., till the Destruction of the Second Temple in the Year 70 C.E..  So while it may be true that usage has recently been on the increase, “Common Era” as a synonym for “Anno Domini” been around for awhile.

Then just what has gotten Carrier’s dander up, really?  I’m sorry to report that the root cause of his distress is anti-PC (political correctness) backlash.  Yes, that tired old trope rears its ugly head again.  He writes, “The newfangled convention has been promoted in an idiotic and patronizing attempt not to ‘offend’ non-Christians who have to use the Christian calender [sic]. . .”  So now it’s becoming clearer.

Not only is using BCE and CE “politically correct,” according to Carrier, but it’s also Orwellian. Oh dear. Does everything have to be Orwellian these days? OK, I understand the charge — it tries to cover up “the Year of Our Lord” by calling it something else, while at the root, nothing has changed. It’s the same year. But, again, do we have to resort to the tiresome accusation of Newspeak every time a linguistic change is introduced?

He further argues that switching to BCE and CE makes the terms less intelligible, less explicable, less practical, and less efficient — therefore it is “monumentally stupid.” Again, that’s a term I would reserve for something truly abominable, such as putting out raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies or serving a grilled cheese sandwich with a dill pickle touching the crust.

I don’t want to dwell on the relative merits of his lesser arguments, because let’s admit it, the two things that really have Richard in a tizzy are first, that BCE and CE reek of political correctness and second, that they’re examples of “a pernicious form of liberalism that believes you can change what things are by renaming them.

I respect Carrier as a historian, skeptic, and fellow atheist, but on this issue he’s just plain wrong. In the first place, he has framed the issue from the typical anti-PC perspective. We’ve seen it all before. The anti-PC whiner rolls his or her eyes, and says mockingly, “Well, we surely wouldn’t want to offend anyone, now would we?”

However, the truth is we don’t introduce inclusive language and neutral terms because we don’t want to “offend” people, but because we want to make everybody feel welcome. Shop owners don’t expect non-Christian customers to be offended by being wished a “Merry Christmas!” Not at all. They just don’t want any customer to feel like an outsider. They want to include, not exclude.  “Happy holidays!  Now stick around and buy some of my crap!”

Getting back to my Google searches for the terms “BCE” and “CE” in books published in the 1800s, I’m struck by the number of Jewish writers who have used the alternative abbreviations. But I think you can quite easily see why they would. Jewish authors don’t necessarily use CE because they themselves are especially offended by the term AD; rather it’s because they don’t want to offend their God by implying that they have some other Lord than the one Adonai.

More than that, they don’t want to break the first commandment by even hinting that they have some other god before the God. Similarly, they don’t want to admit or give tacit approval, however obliquely, to the notion that the Messiah has already come. It isn’t about offense, but rather discomfort, exclusion, and the fear of sin.

Now if we know that it makes some people uncomfortable to use BC and AD — not “offended,” but excluded and perhaps fearful of offending their God — then our motives for gradually replacing AD with CE and BC with BCE can hardly be condemned. But if we continue to use terminology that tends to exclude when inclusive and venerable (i.e., not newfangled) alternatives exist, then we’re just being pigheaded.

I surely can’t be the only person who is tired of the anti-PC backlash, especially when it comes from educated elites who ought to know better. It reminds me of when we reach a certain age and realize that manners and politeness are simply social constructs and that words are just words. Yes, that’s all true; however, it’s also true that manners tend to keep us from killing one another in dense urban environments, and it’s undeniably true that words can exclude, divide, and hurt.

The child learns manners and memorizes polite behavior. The juvenile chafes at the artificial social constructs. The adult embraces good manners in order to keep the peace and to welcome others.

Over the past decade I’ve been using BC and AD less and less, in favor of BCE and CE. I didn’t care much one way or the other, and would often use the terms interchangeably. Now that Carrier’s wrongheaded tirade has shown me the light, I think I’ll embrace the BCE and CE completely — here in the year 2012 CE.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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  • Jason Goertzen
    2012-02-22 17:14:30 GMT+0000 - 17:14 | Permalink

    I think you’re mistaking the often casual tone Carrier on his blog for “vitriol,” and that you aren’t giving his argument a fair hearing. He argues that the change is purely cosmetic–and that it doesn’t make sense to simultaneously use a calendar the central point of which is the supposed life of the Christian God-man–then pretend it’s anything else by just changing the words. He argues–plausibly, at least, even if you aren’t convinced by it–that, if anything, hiding the truth behind euphemisms is counter-productive. I tend to agree with him on that point. Take, for example, “pseudepigrapha.”

    Read the comments. In the discussion that follows, Carrier addresses exactly the kind of points you are making. To object to A.D. simply because it makes reference to the Christian Lord makes as much sense as objecting to having days of the week named after Roman and Norse Gods. Are there Jews who refuse to invoke the names of Thor, Odin, or Saturn when naming days of the week?

    His whole point is that nobody even MEANS “in the year of our Lord,” when they say “A.D.” anymore–any more than we mean “Saturn’s Day,” when we say “Saturday.” A.D., is just a couple of letters that aren’t worth getting upset about. There’s no reason to make the change. Until I hear a better one, I tend to agree with him: it’s a pointless waste of effort.

  • 2012-02-22 18:44:26 GMT+0000 - 18:44 | Permalink

    My experience tells me the change has already happened. I never see recent books and articles using A.D. any more. Always CE or BCE. To try to turn back strikes me as making too much out of nothing. CE is just as “meaningless” to me as AD. Why bother? I can understand the change happening at a time when certain social sensitivities had more significance in many quarters than they may have now, but the change has happened just as any change continues to weave its way through the English language.

    If it’s offensive still in some quarters and others don’t care one way or the other, then why not stick with the less offensive option?

    • Jason Goertzen
      2012-02-23 01:47:44 GMT+0000 - 01:47 | Permalink

      You’re right that, in Academia, the change is all but complete. But Academia is the minority, not the majority. If you asked the average person on the street to tell you what the date was 3000 years ago, it’s very unlikely you’d get “BCE,” rather than “BC”–assuming they can do the basic math 😉

      So to me it still feels like Academia leading a pointless charge, and every time it’s used, it has a kind of ‘pregnancy’ to it (that I’m happy to admit might all be in my head). Whenever I hear people use it, it feels forced–like the person who says “shoot,” and “darn it,” but is clearly thinking something a touch stronger.

      Ultimately, I think you’re right: it doesn’t matter. It really, really doesn’t matter. If someone prefers to use BCE, I’m not going to think less of them; but I can’t bring myself to care if people are offended by “BC” or “AD” either–any more than I can understand when people are genuinely bothered by a curse word. So I don’t see any reason to force myself to use any term other than the one that naturally comes to mind. If, for some, that’s BCE, that’s fine. But I suspect everyone who uses this “relearned it,” when they went to college or university. As such, it’s still an ongoing effort to get people to switch over–an effort that’s a pointless waste of time, but which will no doubt continue despite the few of us who think it’s a bit ridiculous.

  • 2012-02-22 20:54:41 GMT+0000 - 20:54 | Permalink

    I think that we should just divide through by CE so that 100 BCE becomes 100 B and 100 CE is just 100. Think of the ink that would be saved.

  • 2012-02-23 01:44:40 GMT+0000 - 01:44 | Permalink

    Well said on the “flavored coffee” front. That is a HUGE problem in my country!

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • 2012-02-25 13:22:12 GMT+0000 - 13:22 | Permalink

    I grew up with AD and BC and so I hate CE and BCE too. Not because it betokens any erosion of Christianity but because its a pointless change. Some educated Jews got offended I guess that AD means “Anno Domini” and decided to impose this new nomenclature on us all. But honestly, go ask 10 people on the street what AD means and they don’t know. Hardly anyone knows it means Anno Domini, and even if they did, they’d have no clue what Anno Domini means! Its just the way you count time — you have AD and BC. To change BC to BCE is silly. “Hey, lets add a letter. Yeah, let’s make it inconsistent: one unit will be TWO letters and one will be THREE.” I mean, come on! And “common” — what do they mean by “common”? Its meaningless. AD, even when nobody knows what it means, has more meaning than “common era.”

    A change like this — which serves no purpose — is done simply to make older books harder to read. Basically, the powers that be want any old knowledge to be lost (mythicism itself can be included here) and only whatever new mess they come up with to survive. Making sure that future generations wont understand the terminology of the past is just part of that agenda.

    • 2012-02-25 16:18:17 GMT+0000 - 16:18 | Permalink

      reyjacobs: “A change like this — which serves no purpose — is done simply to make older books harder to read.”

      I have faith in you. You’ll still be able to read old books.

      reyjacobs: “Making sure that future generations wont understand the terminology of the past is just part of that agenda.”

      Is this something you really believe or have you been taking your Feign-Feign again?

  • 2012-02-25 13:37:44 GMT+0000 - 13:37 | Permalink

    BTW, they should change AM and PM too — because the word ‘meridian’ offends me.

    Now as to CE and BCE, actually this makes it more obvious than AD and BC that its about Christianity because both have a C in there.

    CE — Christian Era.

    BCE — Before Christian Era.

    The Jews were offended by “Anno Domini” — a Latin phrase hardly anyone knows — so they came up with this “common era” political correctness stuff. And it backfired.

    I love it when political correctness backfires. Maybe I will adopt CE and BCE afterall. Because you know when most lay Christians read it, to them its Christian Era and Before Christian Era.

    • 2012-02-25 16:29:26 GMT+0000 - 16:29 | Permalink

      I do a lot of work in software consulting that crosses timezone lines, and we often talk about keeping track of time in GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Recently, the world changed to a new standard called UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), which for all intents and purposes is the same as GMT, except that technically we no longer track time by the rotation of the earth, but by the decay of certain isotopes.

      Back when I was in the military, we called it Zulu Time, since the zero meridian, which passes through Greenwich, England, was assigned the letter Z. By the way it’s pronounced “GREN-itch,” so if you hear somebody say “GREEN-witch” you know they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

      The point is, we frequently use many terms that mean the same thing, depending on our environment and it is simply no big deal. If the Europeans would rather we not use GMT because it makes it sound as if the UK is the center of the universe, it makes no difference to me. If the Islamic world and the Jewish intelligentsia would rather we call it CE and BCE, then fine. What’s in a word?

      It’s this fake, fake, fake outrage over so-called political correctness that I’m sick of. Give it a rest.

      • 2012-02-25 20:15:57 GMT+0000 - 20:15 | Permalink

        If I am writing up the views of someone who speaks about the “Near East” I will usually substitute my own term “Middle East” for the simple reason that “Near East” has meaning from a European perspective but not from an Australian one.

        And the “Far East” is right on my door step — only a 2 hour flight away.

        • 2012-02-26 04:20:52 GMT+0000 - 04:20 | Permalink

          I’m not even sure there’s a neutral term for the ancient land that lies to the west of the Jordan. No matter what you call it, people will think you’re “taking sides.” I suppose it’s no wonder people use the ambiguous term “Ancient Near East.”

      • 2012-02-26 06:19:21 GMT+0000 - 06:19 | Permalink

        My outrage is not fake. Neither is it all about political correctness. Think of people with dyslexia! AD and BC, well they’re different enough. CE and BCE, no sir, way too similar. Easy to misread.

        If we really want to be totally political correct lets just say positive and negative. Instead of 180 BCE, say 180 negative. Instead of 70 CE, 70 positive. Its even mathematical!

        Plus, think of the people who can’t remember hardly anything. How are they supposed to remember that BCE is negative and CE is positive? If we just said positive and negative they’d be in better shape. You’re just anti-hardtorememberstuff-people!

  • 2012-02-25 21:53:37 GMT+0000 - 21:53 | Permalink

    All these people saying that the change “is for nothing” seem to miss the point. If you are a buddhist, or anyone but a christian, “the year of our Lord” is completely incorrect, and makes no sense. The change has a very definite reason. We now realize that he world is no christian, so universal quantities and measures should be changed to reflect this.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

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