how did "very special" become so - ?
October 16, 2003 02:37 PM

The old Onion article on my little desk calendar (which, okay, I stole from my partner - but he doesn't have a desk) today touts an article entitled "US Deploys Very Special Forces To Iraq". Which makes me think.

If you read old Onion articles from the late nineties, or if you watch reruns of Saturday Night Live from the mid nineties on cable (I don't recommend the latter), you have probably experienced the same eerie feeling I get in both these situations. It's the same stuff. The same stuff being made fun of in the news in 1993, 1998 and today.

All the problems that claim to be resolved keep creeping up.

What's worse - I don't remember things like Osama Bin Laden being a big news item when I was in college. This could be the result of some great media conspiracy to re-create old SNL sketches in order to make me believe he's been a problem for decades - or, more likely, I have very little memory of the news in 1993-1997.

Side note, though.

The thing that pricked up my ears about this Onion article on my calendar is that - as you might predict from the title - the very special forces in question are kinda special olympics-ish. And the article is damn funny (an inordinately long play on special vs. very special forces).

It also calls up one of the ways we patronize people by grouping them with a euphemistic name, and a generally patronizing attitude towards the retarded, developmentally delayed, etc. The disabled, the "challenged". Whatever.

We use this same sort of language at work - we don't encounter problems but "opportunities" and "challenges". I'm sure there are studies that indicate people perceive themselves as happier or more satisfied when beset by opportunities, but no one believes this euphemistic language. The language itself becomes a target for humor.

While people are much more delicate things to label than problems, I wonder how much we gain from moving away from labels that might be insulting to labels that are patronizing - or just plain wrong. I mean, are people we call "special" actually any more special? Is it presumptuous to think they'll have more self-esteem if we call them something "nice", or even to assume they need more self-esteem? Needing to give someone a label is, in many ways, a way to identify them as other or abnormal. Which is, I suppose, special in a way.

Of course, we take this approach to labelling a lot of "other" things (for instance, the shift in what white people call black people every decade or so), and I'm not setting out to pen an indictment of political correctness. But it's interesting how this language thing works - the simple fact that you or your group have been given a politically correct, acceptable name is one of the clearest indicators that you are not the norm, you are not acceptable.

And isn't that ironic?

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