Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yoga and the N word

No, not that N word. I mean "Nazi."

In the, um, aftermath (don't you like the sense of gravity this word evokes? I must be getting seriously self-important :-)) of my November 19th blog post ("Is the Practice a Controlled Form of Torture"), Fran sent me this very thought-provoking and insightful article.

This article set me thinking about the number of times (which is quite a lot) that I use the word "Nazi" more or less casually in daily conversation. Actually, it pops up quite a lot in yoga conversations too. For example, people sometimes speak of certain Iyengar or Iyengar-inspired teachers as being "Alignment Nazis". The first person whom I heard use this word was one of my first yoga teachers (who, incidentally, was Jewish); he was talking fondly about his favorite Iyengar teacher. I myself have described certain ashtanga teachers as being "Vinyasa-Count-Nazis": You know, the kind of teacher who insists that you get into Marichyasana D within the prescribed vinyasa count, even if doing so would seriously compromise the depth of the posture.

I suspect that, for every single aspect of the yoga practice that one can think of, there is probably somebody out there who has already coined a "Nazi" term to describe a teacher or practitioner who focuses almost obsessively on that aspect. But here's the question I'm thinking about: If using the word "Nazi" is considered insensitive or politically incorrect in at least certain cultures, places or contexts, does that mean that we yogis should never use the word "Nazi" to describe anyone or anything, no matter how lightheartedly or seemingly harmlessly?

I'm going to stick my metaphorical neck out (no, you may not have my physical neck: I need it for my yoga practice) and take the first shot at answering this question. Flouting the rules of good philosophical argument, I'm going to begin by baldly stating my personal opinion, and then see if I can defend it. Well, here's my opinion: I am not convinced that we should never ever use the word "Nazi" outside of its original context. In other words, I seriously have difficulty seeing why we should refrain from calling somebody an "Alignment Nazi" or "Vinyasa-Count-Nazi" simply because there are people in certain parts of the world who associate the same word with something terrible. Here's my reason: For me (and, I suspect, for many other people), "Nazi" means "somebody who is almost obsessively focused on a particular aspect of a particular thing", not "brutalized, mechanized killer of millions." I do understand that the word "Nazi" continues to evoke great fear, anguish and pain in certain parts of the western world today. I am not an advocate of knowingly saying things to deliberately hurt or cause people anguish. I will never use that word at all if I am in the presence of somebody whom I know will be greatly offended or hurt by hearing that word.

But doesn't using certain words only in the presence of certain people and not others make me, at best, a hypocrite, and at worst, guilty of adhering to a double standard (actually, I honestly don't know which is worse)? Well... I don't think so. Common sense and decency dictate that we shouldn't use particular words or mention certain things in the presence of a particular person or group of persons if we know that those words or things will seriously offend or hurt the person or persons in question. I will go further, and say that common sense and decency dictate that we have a responsibility to try to know the people we are interacting with as best we can, so that we avoid saying things that might hurt or offend them. But common sense and decency do not dictate that the use of a certain word has to be fixed to a certain historical and cultural context, and that new meanings cannot be invented and used for this word. Common sense and decency also do not dictate that we do not have a right to use particular words to refer to ideas and concepts in a way that differs from the way these words were used in the past, so long as we do our best to do so in a way that is respectful to those who have been hurt or can be hurt by particular meanings of these words.

One might respond to all this by saying that there is probably no way to invent new meanings for a particular word without insulting and offending people for whom the "old" meaning still rings true. Well, if this is true, then I am perfectly willing not to use the word "Nazi" ever again. Okay... so maybe I'll say "Alignment Totalitarian" or "Vinyasa-Count-Totalitarian" instead of "Alignment Nazi" or "Vinyasa-Count-Nazi" (I'm really not sure this is any better, actually, but hey, at least I'm trying...). But maybe you see the problem that is emerging here. Language use is a creative process. For me at least, a big part of the beauty of language lies in the fact that people constantly find new ways to give new meanings to existing words, using them in ways that were not previously used before. If we were to dictate that a particular word cannot be used in a particular way by a group of people in a certain time or place because that word meant something very hurtful or terrible to another group of people in another time or place, wouldn't we be restricting the creativity and freedom of the first group of people? And where do we draw the line? There are probably any number of seemingly innocuous words used in everyday conversation that could evoke something very hurtful or terrible to some person or group of persons somewhere. If we are truly concerned with respecting the feelings of these persons, shouldn't we curtail the use of these everyday words as well? I think you see where I'm going: Something that starts with a well-meaning attempt not to hurt certain persons can snowball into an infringement on the freedom of expression of many other people. 

Well, I think I have defended my humble opinion to the best of my ability. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.       


  1. Nobel - Very nice treatise on the First Amendment. It is the same amendment that Neo-Nazis currently use to march, assemble, and demonstrate. It is also the same amendment the American Civil Liberties Union use to defend everybody's right to freedom of speech and assembly.

    The thing I like about the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is that it is based on the belief that everybody is entitled to their opinions and they should be allowed to express them in public and everybody has the opportunity (or not) to be exposed to those opinions.

    It is a "no fear" approach to governing and I think that is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind - no fear! They were a group or hooligans and rouges and one would expect nothing less than a "no fear" approach from them.

    And while I cringe at the use of the word Nazi in any context, I agree with your argument to use it.

  2. Dear Nobel
    By itself I don't see that there anything innocous sounding or nice about the word in reference. Whereas if someone where to get upset at truly innocous words, as for example, "baby", one would think they were sick mentally.

    That said, I used to cringe before at the sight of swatsikas. Then I learned that it was developed from drawing an inverted version of a symbol in Buddhism. So when I see the original symbol in Buddhis statues, I see the goodness it refers to, and do not associate it with its reverse.