I’m taking three classes this semester where we’re discussing the fellahin, a word one of my textbooks translates as “peasants” another as “village people” and a third as “working class.” In my Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict: 1880 – 1948 class I objected because the textbook called all of the Palestinian farmers “peasants” and the Israeli farmers “agricultural workers.”
I have a habit of picking fights with textbooks–in high school, our American history textbook never let the word “South” appear in a phrase without the word “slavery” appearing within two sentences. I think the purpose of studying history is to prepare ourselves to fight against repeating it, and we are less prepared to address egregious human rights abuses if we learn in high school that the shame of slavery was exclusive to one region, as if the racism which fed the practice and supported later oppressions was not endemic.
To me, the word “peasants” implies a Medieval understanding that working people were the property of their liege lord while “agricultural workers” brings to mind a post-Marx consciousness of the value of all labor and laborers. This poem is what I think of when I hear people described as “peasants.” It begins:
On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We’re not supposed to have “peasants”
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a ’51 Dodge and a ’72 Pontiac.
This question of whether to use new, feel-good language of empowerment rather than older, rich but offensive language to describe offensive inequalities in our society is more than just scholastic fiddling. What we call the legally-recognized relationship between two people in love has been in the news this week. Those who want to segregate (there’s another laden word) same-sex relationships from opposite-sex relationships believe the term “marriage” draws down so much power it is worth taking to the Supreme Court to defend. But the meanings of words change as the things they describe change. “Marriage” used to describe a wide variety of relationships, most based on the cultural value that women were property (Warning: the following image is snarky about the Bible’s views on women, including their standing as survivors of sexual assault):
But since the time of David we as a species have updated what it means to be married. Women have titular equal rights and equal personhood, and so cannot be bundled and sold like cable subscriptions. Women’s rising status from property to people in the past few centuries has done more to change the meaning of marriage than any tiny percentage of same-sex couples taking the vows ever could.
Unlike with marriage, where we kept the word but changed the institution, as a society I believed we have changed what is means to be a “peasant.” No matter how grim the world through Mother Jones’s eyes is, I believe farm-hands today are healthier, wealthier, and more mobile than they were in Medieval times. I would rather call everyone “agricultural workers” just as I would prefer everyone call me Matt’s “partner” rather than his “wife.” One term drags a mind-ton of historical subjugation and societal nastiness and the other implies equality.
Given the choice, I would rather call people something hopeful.
“When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her.”–Sacha Guitry, Elles et toi, 1948