Have you or any of your ideas ever been referred to as "un-American"? To answer that question in the affirmative, I should raise my hand. Not just on one occasion, or by only one person (though it’s only been two, so far), I have been called un-American during a discussion about my thoughts and beliefs. After the last time, just a couple of days ago, I figured I’d talk about it here. I’m a stickler for details ("your" and "you’re" are not interchangeable, no matter how lazy a person is feeling that day), and, though I make my own mistakes, I do my best to adhere to proper grammar and spelling. One of these grammatical aspects of which I have a respect for is semantics.
Am I un-American? Is anything I say un-American? Take my hand (but wipe yours off first if it’s dirty, please), and let’s find out together, shall we?
First, we have to look at the word itself. Un-American. Well, the prefix "un-", literally means "not", though I’m sure you know that. Unfair, unethical, uninteresting… these are all words you’re most likely familiar with, and they are the antithesis of the words formed if you were to subtract the prefix "un-", e.g. unfair = not fair. So, Un-American means "not American". Hmm. So, what is an American? Well, adding the suffixes "-an" or "-ian" to a word denotes that a person or thing belongs to that word, either as a member, citizen, or inhabitant, e.g. Lutheran, Venezuelan, Martian. Also, though there are multiple countries throughout two continents named America (North and South), America is commonly understood as The United States of America, so we’ll address it that way. Taking all of this and putting it together to clarify the word by the definition of its parts means that, by calling me "un-American" I am being called "not a citizen of America". Unless my life as I’ve known it is a lie, I’m definitely an American citizen, so based on that fact alone… I CAN’T be un-American. But what if it’s in reference to my ideas?
Let’s take the same approach. I’m not intent on being a smart-aleck jackass, here, so even though to call me or any other U.S. citizen "un-American" is grammatically incorrect, most of the time it is a person’s ideas that are being called un-American. I had to set up that introduction, though, because it continues here, as well. The prefix remains the same, and instead of the "American" part referring to an individual citizen, it’s referring to an idea. What is an American idea, though? What defines ideas that are American and ideas that are not American? Well, what defines America?
This country was founded on some very basic, but interesting, ideas of freedom. According to my country’s laws, I have the freedom to believe anything I want and to express my beliefs without concern of oppression. Now, I can’t just DO whatever I want, but as long as my actions do not encroach on anyone else’s freedoms, most of the time they’re a-okay. So, as the folks who may refer to me or my ideas as un-American would most definitely agree with me (I hope.. or they’re confused), a large part of what makes something American is freedom. It’s an interesting topic, because America was based on the principle of shared, but accepted, differences. The entire point was that people wanted a country in which they couldn’t be told by any one group or individual what to believe or think. I may think and believe what I wish, even if it’s not within the popular opinion, because that’s American. Or are my name-callers referring to a societal norm?
I’d hope not (we have to look at every angle, though), but perhaps I am being un-American simply because I am deviating from the thought process of an American norm. Even if that is true, the majority is not definitive of what America is, because of the aforementioned individual freedoms. I’m a Christian, and while there are many variations of what that word means, there are certain uniform ideas that are inherit in it. The concept of sin, for example, is a common belief that runs throughout any Christian denomination, so we could say that sinning is "un-Christian". Obviously there is forgiveness, and I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but my point is that certain "-an" suffixes do come with certain rules and guidelines that allow for actions or thoughts to be "un-whatever". Even though my thoughts may vary from popular opinion about something in the Bible (the end times, for example), that does not make me un-Christian. Even still, there CAN be un-American ideas, though… and those would be ideas that go against what America represents, and as I mentioned above, what America represents is the personal freedom of its citizens. So, yes, if I were to do something or have an idea that would aim to take away given freedoms from fellow citizens, that would be un-American. What if I’m not saying things like that, though. What if I’m talking about the military when the term un-American is bestowed upon me?
What throws me about the word "un-American" is that it seems to be used as a gentler synonym for "anti-American", but that’s incorrect. "Anti-" means "against", while "un-" simply means "not". I am "not" a platypus, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I am "against" those crazy little animals. That is how the folks who usually use the term "un-American" generally take it, though, and a large part of that is because they can’t seem to personally detach from a topic and look at it subjectively. The two folks who I have been referencing in this post both have strong military ties, and both have used the term we’re now talking about when in discussion with me about the military. It’s a hot spot for some, and my subjective manner only seems to annoy them more.
I’ll use the latest example, to begin wrapping up this entry. A gal I know became a fan of a group on Facebook titled (something along the lines of) "Make it illegal to protest at military funerals". I made a comment about how I hoped that wouldn’t happen, and she approached me to discuss it. My main point was that, even though protesting a funeral is in extremely bad taste (though the folks who do it are really just trying to drive home a point and get noticed… and it works), as long as the protest is peaceful, it should be allowed. A second point I made was why should we legally differentiate between a military funeral and the funeral of any citizen? Here is where the facet of being un-American comes in, because while discussing that very point I mentioned that I have no additional respect for someone who died fighting in this war than for anyone else who might have died. My grandpa (mom’s dad) was in the coast guard, but the reason I cried when he died was because I respected him as a really great guy. On the other side, I briefly knew a guy through an acting class at Saddleback who was kind of a prick. He went back for a second tour in Iraq, and shortly after the semester, he was killed in action. I’m not insensitive… I’m very sad that he died, it’s not wonderful when someone is killed – especially someone young. Does his death negate the fact that I didn’t particularly like him, though? I’ve tried talking about this type of over-sensitive reverence bestowed upon anything U.S. military, simply "because", and that idea is what has been considered un-American.
Forgetting how you may or may not feel about war, this war, the U.S., soldiers, or anything else, and considering everything I’ve previously talked about, in regards to what it means to be American, can you see the flawed logic in the use of the phrase "un-American" in regards to me and/or my ideas? I’m not looking for anyone to agree with me, I’m simply hoping to explain the situation… and, more importantly, the phrase itself. I will show anyone the same respect as anyone else, but to take it back to the beginning, I wish more people would show the same respect to proper semantics. Discussing a point with anyone who is highly emotional about the subject-at-hand is difficult enough, without the constant misuse of the English language.
Am I un-American? No… that one’s a grammatical fact. Are my ideas un-American? While I may not fit the bill of what some people see as patriotic, normal, handsome (aww), or even "American", I happily enjoy the same freedoms that any other citizen in this country does, and I am proud to be able to talk about what I believe and how I feel, without any concern that my thoughts are somehow "un-American"…
and what is more American than that?