On the word ‘inappropriate’
There are some words people wince at with an acute sense of revulsion and exasperation. ‘Moist’ seems to be a popular candidate for this visceral tic. Others are averse to ‘panties’ and ‘crotch’, since they sound rather harsh and inelegant in referring to intimate zones. Most people, even those who are unabashed logophiles, will have a few words that are disliked, scorned and contemptuous of, even if irrationally; words that never cease to leave an acrid taste in one’s mouth. Other words just plain irritate us.
Pour moi, ‘inappropriate’ is one of these irksome words. This quintosyllabic word consistently grates on me whenever I read it, or hear it uttered. I greatly detest the tone of voice it’s often said in: a sickly mix of concealed condescension and obese pomposity.
Because of #MeToo and certain episodes in the ‘culture wars’ we have become increasingly used to coming across phrases such as “inappropriate behaviour”, “inappropriate touching”, “inappropriate language”, “inappropriate comments”, “inappropriate content”, “inappropriate dress”, at times even “inappropriate thoughts”. One problem with this sweeping use of ‘inappropriate’ is the ambiguity of the word. The censors on Instagram and other social media platforms are endlessly on the hunt for ‘inappropriate content’, which, as is often the case with censorship, is vaguely defined, almost deliberately.
Unwanted advances and sexual harassment/assault is wrong, not merely ‘inappropriate’. But what about when it is wanted and consensual? It isn’t wrong or immoral, at least not conspicuously, but it could still be deemed ‘inappropriate’. After all, many businesses in the name professionalism and organisational rationality would wish to completely banish Eros from the workplace completely. So no dating between employees, even if they are equals — it would be ‘inappropriate’. We must maintain professionalism! The workplace is not a dating pool! Hard ons get in the way of productivity. Even football banter at work is seen as ‘inappropriate’ for supposedly excluding women, the logic of which is rather ludicrous on its face.
I encountered an article recently where Albany police chief is quoted as describing the act of Officer Chauvin kneeing George Floyd on his neck as “appearing to be inappropriate”. Not to be pedantic, but kneeing another human being on his neck while he is lying handcuffed on the ground for minutes on end while he is crying out for his mother, putting him down like a stray dog on the street, doesn’t strike me as merely “inappropriate”. It is rather more severe than that. To call an act of barbarism such as that ‘inappropriate’ is, shall we say, ‘inappropriate’. New York mayor Bill De Blasio in reaction to the viral clip showing the maddening scene of a NYPD police car attempting to run over protesters demonstrating against the murder of George Floyd, condemned the protesters as “inappropriate” for approaching the car before the drivers decided to hit the acceleration pedal. Now, if you are going to condemn protesters for nothing and odiously side with the cops, then do it properly; don’t take refuge behind the feebly pathetic word, ‘inappropriate’.
Christian Cooper, who was at the centre of the Central Park Karen social media firestorm, condemned death threats sent to Amy Cooper (no relation obviously) as “abhorrent and inappropriate”. Abhorrent is an ‘appropriate’ to use, but ‘inappropriate’? Isn’t it interesting ‘inappropriate’ was the word he reached for. No need to condemn him, since he was doing the honourable thing, but ‘inappropriate’ isn’t a word I would reach for when talking about a death threat. It would really understate and misdiagnose it. Abhorrent was fine enough on its own. Nevertheless, it demonstrates the increasing assimilation of ‘inappropriate’ as a ubiquitous term into everyday and official moral and ethical discourse.
The word ‘inappropriate’ originally means something that is not suitable to a particular situation. Clearly, it is context dependent, as human behaviour is so spontaneous and fluid. So a jacket in your wardrobe that may be suitable for a swanky party, may not be suitable or ‘appropriate’ for a funeral. It would also be ‘inappropriate’ to take a ten year old to a strip club. But to slightly paraphrase Noam Chomsky, words used in popular discourse often have double meanings — its literal meaning and its assigned meaning in actually existing usage. So ‘inappropriate’ in the way it is often deployed isn’t simply about the context in which an action or a act of speech occurs. No, they are inherently inappropriate! Hence, they must be expunged. Inappropriate in our culture has been transformed into a synonym for bad or wrong and an expression of discomfort and outrage.
‘Inappropriate’ such an insipid and anaemic term of bureaucratic patter; a hoary buzzword from the glossary of HR liberalism. It sounds neutral, gentle even, yet carries the full force of official power behind it, making it rather insidious. It condemns actions or words as wrong without the grandeur of moral authority, while simultaneously re-appropriating it in a synthetic manner. So it is weaselly and passive, as well as incredibly smug at once. In essence, it is a moralism masquerading as dispassionate concern for ‘appropriate’ conduct.
As someone who cares for my native English language, and a firm believer in what the ancient Greeks called Parrhesia in writing and speech; free and clear; unencumbered and unadulterated; purified of bullshit and meek indolent phraseology. The promiscuous use of ‘inappropriate’ rinses out ethical discourse, whilst being insufferably moralistic. It encourages lazy thinking and deadens thought. It is a word that does your thinking for you and constrains the imagination. While, one cannot wholesale abolish ‘inappropriate’ from the language, but its use can be restrained and extremely rationed, substituted for better, dare I say more ‘appropriate’ alternatives. For me it is the nuclear option, to be avoided whenever possible, anything else would be inappropriate.