Friday, March 5, 2010

So What Would You Call It?

I've noticed an interesting thing on Slate, recently, in the aftermath of two earthquakes to our South.

I'm not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods.
Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?

There will be "looting" in Chile this week as people struggle to survive in the ruins, but the Chilean army and police, not the U.S. Marines, will control the situation.
Shaken, but Not Broken
And I wondered: "Scare quotes? What for?" The implication, I think, is that what is being called looting actually isn't looting. And to a degree, that might be right. What happened in Haiti or Chile (or New Orleans, for that matter), doesn't quite fit the definition of loot as it appears in Merriam-Webster, since there isn't a war going on. My hard copy Webster, however, allows for any calamity to be an occasion for looting, but it came out during the Reagan administration, so things may have changed in the interim.

But I think that something else is actually in play. And that is that the word looting has a negative connotation attached to it, conjuring up images of bandanna-masked people rushing out of Best Buy with plasma screen televisions during a riot triggered by a demonstration gone South. And to some of Slate's more left-leaning authors, it's unfair to use that same word to refer to people who are basically stealing to survive.

However, one wonders what would actually change if we invented a new word to mean: stealing necessities to survive after a catastrophe. Likely, people everywhere would rush to claim the term for themselves, wanting it to be known that they're taking things for only the right reasons. And this would work for about a week, until the new word acquired the same negative connotations of looting, and left-leaning authors started bracketing it in scare quotes. After all, we already use looting instead of stealing or thievery, mainly because it's a narrower term - otherwise we could simply give Hindustani (which I think is just called Hindi-Urdu these days) its word back, thank it for the loan, and simply call people who steal things thieves, as we usually do.

A better alternative is simply to retain the word loot, but allow it to remain value neutral, with any moral judgment being predicated on the situation at hand. Looting designer clothes from a boutique during an Anarchist demonstration because you don't think you'll get caught - criminal. Looting food from a grocery store after an earthquake because you don't know when emergency supplies will arrive (and you didn't unjustly hoard any for just such an emergency) - more acceptable. We've got enough morally loaded words as it is. No need to load new ones.

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