Whenever I come across a use of language that makes me cringe, I tell myself that the English language is robust and evolving, and can survive any number of hopeful monsters. I outlasted “not” being added to the end of every sentence, I keep reminding myself, and I can survive whatever other grotesque usage that slouches my way. But there are limits, and mine is “not appropriate” and its near-relative “inappropriate.”
You know what I’m referring to: flat, prim statements that something done, said – or even thought – is “not appropriate.” Typically, I regret to say, it is said by someone such as a unionist, feminist, or environmentalist, with whose basic ideas I agree, but with whose tactics (obviously) I find reprehensible. In fact, I can think of few phrases I disdain more.
What’s my problem with “not appropriate”? For one thing, it’s a euphemism. When someone says that something is “not appropriate,” what they really mean is that they dislike or disapprove of what they are condemning. But instead of saying what they mean, they hide behind a vague phrase. So, right away, they’re being dishonest.
However, unlike many euphemisms, “not appropriate” isn’t used to be discreet or to spare someone’s feelings. Instead, it’s one of the most basic invalid arguments imaginable: an appeal to an authority – in this case, the alleged standards of the community and the unspoken rules by which we live by. The implication is that the person who has done something “not appropriate” has transgressed in a way that no decent adult ever should.
I say “alleged standards” because, almost always, the transgression is not against existing community norms, but against what the speaker would like to be the community norms. My impression is that the speaker is hoping that, by assuming that these norms are already generally accepted, they can enforce their ethics as though everybody shared them.
I would find such tactics hard to tolerate in anyone, but, when standards I support are used in this way, I worry about the harm they can cause. I suspect that many people who might otherwise be persuaded to those standards will reject them simply because they resent the clumsy efforts at manipulation.
After all, when accused of being “not appropriate” or “inappropriate,” you are not supposed to stop and consider the merits of the standards being implied, or discuss what is happening. You are supposed to act on reflex, and shut up.
Those who go around condemning things as “not appropriate” are setting themselves up – almost always, completely unasked — as authorities about what is socially acceptable. The implication is that they know what is right and wrong, and those they address they do not.
Basically, they are offering themselves as the guardians of ethics and morality, demanding that others obey without any discussion. They are taking on the role of teachers and casting everyone else as dull students, playing parents to unsatisfactory children, or cops to the mob. They are usurping an authority to which they have no right – and, when they stoop to condemning even thoughts (or their interpretations of them) as “not appropriate,” they become downright creepy.
No matter how you parse the phrase, “not appropriate” is a fundamentally dishonest and authoritarian expression. The sole virtue of “not appropriate” (or “inappropriate”) is that its use signals that the speaker is so committed to intellectual fraud and authoritarianism that you can save yourself endless time and effort by walking away from them.