December 1999

The cat shat




As soon as I opened my front door to leave, I noticed a bad smell. I couldn't immediately see where the source was, but I didn't have to. My neighbour, a middle-aged woman, normally good-humoured, came out to her door and said in Chinese to me, with some agitation, "That cat! It defaecated here. What a stink!" She pointed to a little mound of brown stuff in the common corridor just outside her door. Ugh!

I shared her disgust, but having an appointment downtown, I didn't have the time to help her do anything about it. She wasn't expecting me to. I don't have a cat, and she wasn't holding me responsible or anything like that. She was just venting her frustration. Nonetheless, I myself didn't want the stink to be around by the time I came back, so it was in my own interest to help her do something about it too.

"I'll go by the Town Council and tell them about it," I promised her. It was one of those rare occasions when it was useful to have the Town Council just 3 minutes' walk away.

At the Council office, I went up to the counter. "Hi, my neighbour and I have a problem in the corridor outside our front doors," I said to the clerk.

"What is the problem?"

"There's cat shit in front of my neighbour's door, and she's quite upset about it."

"The cat belong to who?" the clerk wanted to know.

What a pointless question, I thought to myself. "I don't know. Neither my neighbour nor I keep pets. Must be some cat from somewhere." Privately, I suspected that it was one of the strays I've seen around. "Of course we didn't see the cat," I stressed to the clerk, "if we had, we would have chased it away."

Suitably admonished, she clicked her computer mouse and got to the page where she could fill out a report. "We will tell the cleaners immediately," she assured me as she began keying in the information.

I gave her my name, address and phone number. She typed the details in. Then she appeared to be stuck at the next question. She scrolled up and down the screen, but didn't seem to find what she was looking for. Not being able to see the screen from where I stood, I couldn't help her.

Finally, she went off to look for her supervisor. I was getting a little annoyed as this delay meant I would be late for my appointment. I hadn't planned on making this detour to the Town Council in the first place, and a simple complaint like this was taking longer than I expected.

The clerk came back with her superior. The older woman took over the mouse, scrolled away and read out the selected option as she clicked, "Animal shed dirt."

The junior didn't seem to understand how that was the appropriate classification. "You mean, there's an animal shed?"

The older woman didn't bother to explain, but turned to me instead, "It's done. We'll make sure the cleaners get to it."

At about this point, this essay should be going off on the bigger story about foreign workers and our attitudes to them. We depend on Indian and Bangladeshi workers to do all kinds of dirty work in Singapore which no Singaporean wants to do. We have disgusting cat shit in our corridor, and we expect that the Indian workers will come, without delay, to clean up the stinking mess. We can afford to be disgusted. They are not supposed to let disgust stand in the way of doing the work. What does that tell us about how we view other peoples?

But -- call me insensitive -- I wasn't even thinking about the foreign workers as I left the Town Council. Instead, I was telling myself, what a stupid euphemism -- "animal shed dirt" -- that confounded the junior clerk and that caused me to wait an extra minute while she searched for her supervisor when I was already late!

Euphemisms are not cost-free

This was a minor incident. Other euphemisms, however, do a lot more damage, but are also more insidious.

In another article in Yawning Bread, I provided the transcript of a segment of a TV program that dealt with sex education in Singapore schools. This 5-minute segment was on homosexuality. In opening this segment and introducing the subject, the voice-over said, "And for those confused about their sexuality, the dilemma is even greater."

That phrasing was offensive. What was really meant was, 'for those who were homosexual, the dilemma is even greater' as anyone would understand from the rest of the program that followed. Perhaps out of (misplaced) concern that using the word "homosexual" was just too stigmatising, the scriptwriters chose the euphemism "confused about their sexuality". I think it was worse to do that.

First of all, the statement is not even correct. Many teenagers are sure they are gay. They are not confused. Second of all, phrasing it that way then suggests to listeners that being gay is a kind of confusion, which, as I will explore below, comes with other negative connotations in train.

Let's take the objection of inaccuracy. If one asks around gay people in their late teens or twenties, one will find many of them saying that they knew they were gay back in their secondary school days or even earlier. They had crushes on other boys (or girls as the case may be), they were fantasising about same-sex poster models, especially ones with minimal clothing on. Some were even intimate to some extent or another with classmates or cousins. And they knew they were different from their peers who were beginning to be interested in the opposite sex.

It was quite clear in their minds where their interests lay. 'Confused' would not be a word they'd apply to themselves. The issue that they faced was quite a different one: how to keep the secret. The validity of the secret itself was not in doubt.

This is not to say that every gay person had such clarity of self-awareness so soon after puberty. There were others who were indeed having a more difficult time understanding their urges, though my personal theory is that they were more likely to be the bisexual rather than the homosexual teenagers -- their interest would have been directed both ways, so it would be a more difficult picture for them. But to over-generalise by using the term 'confused about their sexuality' to mean 'homosexual' is to mask and dismiss an important fact: that some gay teenagers are sure that they are gay.

'Confused' has other objectionable connotations too. Take a bird's eye view, and you'd see that the use of this word implies just two possibilities: those who are not confused, and those who are confused. From the context, the listener gets the idea that 'not confused' equates with heterosexual; 'confused' with 'homosexual'.

The 'confused'/'not confused' dichotomy implies that there is a clear path, or right answer, but that a certain group of 'confused' people have strayed from it. Got lost in the bush. Not quite in command of all the facts. Misled by others. Misinformed. Muddled. Muddleheaded. Not up to standard.

It creates a value distinction. To be heterosexual is at a higher level: the clear path and right answer. To be homosexual is to be less worthy a person.

Another euphemism is to say that so-and-so has homosexual tendencies. I find this equally objectionable. You'd see why when you look globally and see how we generally use the word 'tendencies'. We use this word to play down something that is either socially unacceptable or shameful.

We say that Cathy, well, she has a tendency to lie. Penelope, however, is honest. We don't say that Penelope has a tendency to be honest.

Shee Kuan is an articulate guy, but Warren has a tendency to stammer. Ramesh is articulate too, though he has a tendency to be a bit too glib.

Yee Leng is in very good shape, but poor Noraisha, she has a tendency to put on weight.

(I'm not suggesting that we should stigmatise people who stammer or are overweight; I'm just showing how we use the word 'tendency'.)

Even when something is value-neutral, we don't use the word 'tendency'. Suresh is a retired civil servant. We don't say he has a tendency to be a retired civil servant. Natasha is short-sighted and wears glasses. But it'd be ludicrous if we tried to say that Natasha has myopic tendencies! And Keiko is Japanese. She does not have Japanese tendencies.

When we avoid saying so-and-so is gay, and instead say that he has homosexual tendencies, we are at the same time denigrating homosexuality. We are indicating that homosexuality belongs in the box marked 'shame' or 'sin'.

It does not.

And if you are among those who think it does, then you are guilty of sin: the sin of causing hurt through discrimination and indignities; and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Yawning Bread