Friday, December 26, 2008

those horrible, horrible words

According to this Yahoo! News artice, a woman in Florida claims that her insistence upon saying "Merry Christmas" got her fired. I'm not too concerned with the particulars of the case, which seems to involve stupidity on both sides of the dispute, but I do want, once again, to talk about the question of whether the phrase "Merry Christmas" (and its cousins in other religious traditions) has any place in the public sphere.

To me, it's a no-brainer: "Merry Christmas," earnestly said, is completely inoffensive. My problem is with the people who object to the utterance of that wish on the grounds that it is somehow oppressive. To those folks I say: you obviously don't know a damn thing about oppression. Want to know what it's like to live under someone else's thumb? Ask some older black folks about life before the 1960s. Ask some older Koreans who remember the Japanese occupation, or Koreans who've recently escaped from North Korea. Talk to Holocaust survivors and to people who made it through Stalin's time. Talk to the victims of apartheid in South Africa. There are millions of people out there who, even today, actually suffer under the yoke of real oppression, and I'm pretty sure they're not too worried about the impact of a phrase like "Merry Christmas." You might say that I'm offended by the easily offended, and this PC nonsense that has turned simple religious greetings into verbal minefields bugs me to no end.

I'm not offended to hear "Seong-bul hashipshiyo" ("May you attain Buddhahood") from a monk or lay Buddhist. If a Jewish friend wants to wish me a Happy Hanukah, that's fantastic. Why should anyone of any religion feel they have to keep their religious sentiments bottled up? What would be so wrong about a public sphere in which echoed a cacophony of diverse greetings, all expressing heartfelt good intentions, varying according to culture and season?

What are your thoughts on the matter?

UPDATE: Superblogger Ann Althouse seems to agree with what I'm saying:

The majority of Americans may be Christian, but even within this majority, many prefer for the shared public forum to be secular. And most of those who want to see more Christmas displays and to hear more wishes of "Merry Christmas" are not expecting nonbelievers to celebrate the religious holiday. They may also think -- as many nonChristians also think -- that it can be happy and heartwarming to see the signs of other people's religion -- at least in a free country where no one is trying to make you do anything other than passively witness what other people choose to do.

In that same blog post, Althouse quotes a blog post by her ex-husband, a Jew, who puts things in proper perspective.

The only thing that confuses me about the above-quoted paragraph is the intrusion of the word "secular," which doesn't quite fit the point Althouse may be trying to make. To me, "secular" is the opposite of "religious," and I think what she and I are really advocating is something that might not even have a name: a neutral playing field where various religious traditions and secular positions are tolerated and granted parity in terms of how they may express themselves in public. What's wrong with humorous celebrations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or shouting a facetious-but-not-spiteful "Happy Festivus" in response to the "Merry Christmas"es of others? Open the arena to all and sundry, but don't call it "secular." There has to be a better term for that sort of forum.



Charles said...

I completely and absolutely agree. Wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" is not saying, "You must conform to my world and religious views," it is saying, "I hope that you have a happy Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not."

Put another way, the wisher is naturally going to express his or her wishes in the idiom to which the wisher is most accustomed. If the wisher knows a little more about the wishee, he or she may choose to express those wishes in the idiom to which the wishee is accustomed. But the intent of the wish is the same: that the wishee experience feelings of well-being.
It's a sad comment on our society that wishes of happiness and joy have somehow become "oppressive."

melancholy donut said...

im with the two of you, absolutely. i dont have much more to add to whats already written though!

happy festivus to everyone dammit

Anonymous said...

Can you explain to me the reason that people seem to have forgotten (or were never taught about) the untold millions of native people in the New World who perished in the name of Jesus? We are told never to forget about the holocaust, but somehow this larger one is rarely mentioned or remembered. Instead, when it is talked about, it is given the more docile sounding name, ethnocide.

Growing up, I thought my liberal Mexican relatives (most of whom are professors) were a beyond strange to be naming their children odd Nahuatl names with so many weird consonants. I had always been taught that that bit of blood running through our veins was not something to be valued but rather hidden under the rug thanks to the church and those at the top of society (mostly descendants of white Europeans). What I didn’t know was that this was their way of rebelling against the abuses of the Christian church and honoring those, and the past, destroyed by it. They took a lot of harassment over the years in a society dominated by the Catholic Church and where most kids are named Jesus, Maria, Guadalupe, or after the Apostles as my father named his sons.

Also, there are those who have been raised in the church and have suffered abuses in the name of Christianity, or by the clergy, that are highly offended by this constant “merry” reminder every year. It’s hard to forget a painful past when it is thrown in your face on a regular basis, even when it comes from well-meaning, but totally oblivious, individuals.

In addition, there is the “oppressive” commercial aspect of the season on top of it all, which is especially unsettling in today’s trying economic downturn. We are constantly bombarded with images and messages that make many feel like they are utter failures because they can’t provide their family with what are “media-driven” society deems a normal, average Christmas with the big tree, plentiful presents, and a big spread of food to engorge themselves on.

Finally, I don’t know, other than from personal experience, that this so-called “merry” time can lead to those taking their own lives? I truly hope no one ever has to come home to the image of a loved one who has taken their own life because of the pressures, or pain, associated with this season.

John from Daejeon

Anonymous said...

I believe I addressed this in my comments to your post of Wednesday, December 24, 2008.

Kevin Kim said...


I had been wondering which "PC fucks" you were referring to.


re: this--

"Can you explain to me the reason that people seem to have forgotten (or were never taught about) the untold millions of native people in the New World who perished in the name of Jesus?"

It probably has a lot to do with how the history curriculum is structured in most US schools. I recall learning about Catholics blessing babies and dashing their skulls against rocks to insure they would go to heaven in a state of grace, but only later in my studies. In fact, that particular image is so appalling that I pretty much remember it all by itself, devoid of context. And I'm sure that wasn't the end of the depravity: that other atrocities probably accompanied early missionary work in the New World goes without saying.

As for the rest of your comment, well... I don't know. I suppose a lot depends on what sort of hand history has dealt us, and our attitude toward that hand. I personally harbor no particular resentment toward the young Japanese students who come to Korea to study, despite the fact that Japanese culture still heavily influences what Koreans do and think, and the fact that the Japanese occupation is part of my history, thanks to relatives who remember it. I can forgive and forget. I seriously doubt that the same attitude could be demanded of older Koreans who actually lived through the Japanese occupation-- it's one of those questions I can't touch, because it has everything to do with a person's own capacity to forgive. I don't judge the Holocaust survivor who forgives the Germans of a previous generation, so many of whom were either actively Nazi or passively collaborating with the Nazi Final Solution. Nor do I judge the Jew who has spent his or her post-Holocaust years seething with hatred toward Germany and all things German. I can understand both attitudes-- forgiveness and the inability to forgive.

I do think, though, that the idea that "Merry Christmas" is offensive because of all the injustice that permeates Christian history is something of an unfair judgment to bring against someone who (1) probably isn't aware of that history, and (2) has only good intentions while walking down the hallway, saying "hi" to people. Barking out a resentful response is just going to catch the well-wisher off guard and leave them with that "huh?" feeling. What happens after that moment? A stern lecture on Christianity's past and current sins? After a few such lectures given to coworkers in the workplace, one begins to wonder who, exactly, has the real problem.

So having thought out loud a bit in writing this comment, I'd venture to say that, despite the many and undeniable downsides to Christian history, there is no necessary connection between that history and a simple "Merry Christmas" uttered in good faith. It'd be very different if someone greeted others with "Heil Hitler!" To establish an equivalency between "Merry Christmas" and "Heil Hitler!" would indicate a total loss of perspective.

People who have suffered oppression and who feel that a certain party or religious tradition is largely at fault have a right to their resentment and hatred. But, especially in a country as pluralistic as America strives to be, it's incumbent on all of us to treat each other with tolerance and respect, and to interpret each other's utterances charitably before flying off the handle for reasons that can't be known by the interlocutor.

It would take a lot to convince me that the simple phrase "Merry Christmas" is somehow inherently odious. The person harboring the resentment should probably practice some discernment before giving voice to an angry thought. Not all Christians are baby-bashers; in fact, these days, most aren't, and would be just as horrified by the behavior of earlier Christians as anyone else would.

So as usual, I'm trying to adopt a middle way here. I can't tell a direct victim of oppression to "get over it"; that's pretty obvious. At the same time, I see no necessary link between a modern person's expression of goodwill and previous wrongs committed by older (or long-dead) members of the wisher's tradition. If I have to pick a side, I'd prefer to err on the side of civility plus a lowering of the sensitivity threshold-- too many puckered sphincters out there! If I personally didn't practice that ethic, I'd spend all my time obsessing about "those damn Japs."


Kevin Kim said...

I meant to add something else, which follows from my previous comment:

Let's say a Christian wishes a person who resents Christianity (for personal/historical reasons) a "Merry Christmas." The wishee offers a polite but gruff response to the wisher, adding that s/he'd rather not hear that greeting again.

So far, so good: both sides have, in a sense, expressed something about their personal boundaries. If, however, the Christian were, from then on, to insist on greeting that particular person with "Merry Christmas"-- after having been told that that person doesn't wish to hear it-- it's obvious that the Christian is in the wrong to be so stubborn. Such insistence still doesn't qualify as oppression, but it might be considered a form of harassment, depending on the spirit in which it continues. Greeting people with "Merry Christmas" was never one of Christ's commands, after all; the Christian can afford to give ground, here.

That said, I believe that in an ideal world, people would practice a sufficient level of nonattachment that the wishee wouldn't respond resentfully upon hearing "Merry Christmas," which in and of itself contains nothing oppressive.

And that brings us back to the public sphere-- the office, a bus terminal, the inside of a subway car. I don't think that sanitizing the public sphere of all religious expression (freedom from religion as opposed to freedom of religion) is the answer. Better to allow expression and charitably assume benign intentions than to suppress expression on the assumption (rooted in an ideology of victimhood) that all such expressions are somehow oppressive, or violate a person's right to privacy, etc. Yes, we'd probably have to qualify that by noting that "Believe in Jesus," being an imperative, crosses the line whereas "Merry Christmas," which has nothing imperative about it, doesn't.

Final note: we might have to examine what the word "oppression" means depending on context. To call the Christmas holidays "oppressive" is, to my mind, a far different animal from, say, calling such-and-such regime "oppressive." In a free society, people can choose how they handle something like the holidays. If they're driven to suicide by the pressures in their head (and ultimately, that's the only place those pressures exist), that's not an argument that there's something inherently wrong with the Christmas season (or, to use Korean examples, the Chuseok or Seollal seasons).


Anonymous said...

Who started this whole "controversy", anyway? Do you know? My own impression is that years ago many commercial establishments and other public entities began using "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" instead, probably because they have a lot of Jewish or other non-Christian customers whom they didn't wish to offend, or to put it more positively, wished to include in the spirit of the season. Then more recently, conservative Christians decided that somehow this was offensive to them, and began pushing the twin ideas that someone was trying to stop them from saying Merry Christmas, and that therefore everyone should use Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays. Not that I know--but that's the impression that's seeped into my awareness. If I'm right--the Christian who is offended by the use of "Happy Holidays" is being, in my opinion, even more overly-tender than the, say, Muslim who is offended by being wished Merry Christmas.

I personally think we can find more important things to fight about, but I can see how it would be irritating at least for someone who's identity is closely tied up in a religious identity other than Christian to have this Christian greeting tossed at them over and over many times a day. The very obliviousness of the people doing the tossing would be part of the irritation. However, one could also argue that Christmas, what with Santa Claus and the intense commercialization, has become more of a secular holiday than a Christian holiday, so it's not really all that Christian a greeting any more.

Having said that--Charles reads a lot of very specific meaning into the phrase. Who knows the exact intent of every stranger that wishes someone Merry Christmas? But I would be suspicious that someone so committed to using the phrase that s/he'd be willing to be fired rather than give it up might just really be intending something closer to "the world should all be Christian" than "Season's Greetings".

Kevin Kim said...


Your guess is as good as mine as to who started the controversy. I think it's a bit like how jokes originate and evolve: you can't go back to a single source. There might be a single source, but something like this "Merry Christmas" affair more likely arose through an unpleasant and cumulative dialectic.

Here, too, the history of the controversy is, to my mind, irrelevant when we consider the specific case of a well-intentioned adherent of any religion who wants to offer a wish grounded in their tradition. Why the automatic assumption, by the wishee, of bad intent on the part of the wisher? That, to me, is where the oversensitivity lies. Better to err on the sides of both freedom of speech and charitable interpretation than to go through life with a bunker mentality.

Of course, it's true that millions of Christians have a bunker mentality of their own. They see their in-group as a raft full of the righteous in a sea of the fallen, and view the American situation in terms of the so-called "war on Christmas."

That's unfortunate. As far as I'm concerned, public religious expression (at least the non-imperative kind) is a right belonging to all-- not just to Christians, who really have no cause to feel beleaguered, given their demographic dominance in America.

But I still can't get past the fundamental ridiculousness of snarling in response to a simple "Merry Christmas."

All this begins to remind me of Dane Cook's routine about "the atheist's sneeze." As Cook says: "It's amazing the way, sometimes, just a little lint ball-- a little ball of lint-- can turn into a clusterfuck."


Malcolm Pollack said...

Good old religion! Century after century, it continues to be a mighty engine of discord not only at the broadest scales of history and geography, but at the smallest and pettiest as well.

How lucky we are still to have it dominating so much of our lives.

Anonymous said...

Addofio: I'm sure I have no idea what you are talking about. How is that I "read a lot of very specific meaning" into the phrase? I have, in fact, attempted to do the opposite: to not read any specific meaning into the phrase and just see it as a simple greeting. I was not referring specifically to the woman in the article, mainly because it should be obvious that we don't have the whole story there, just speculation.

I would agree that someone who insists on saying "Merry Christmas" even when threatened with termination has a problem, but in most situations this is not the case. It is simply a greeting.

I don't know, maybe it's because I live in Korea. Here, the phrase "Merry Christmas" has no religious connotation whatsoever, and everyone I know uses it to greet people at this time of year, Christian and non-Christian alike. Maybe I have been away from the highly charged religious atmosphere of the States for too long to fully understand this.