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 a while.
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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