The Third Estate, OR, the Preferred Nomenclature of Our Binary World

“Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”

Stephen Pinker references this age-old euphemism in The Stuff of Thought, his book about Language as a Window into Human Nature. We don’t always mean what we say or say what we mean. Which is nice, because if we couldn’t understand innuendo or double entendre, guys would have to say, “Would you like to come up and see my . . . ”

Our choice of language implies certain things. If that weren’t the case, people wouldn’t spend time framing issues and discussions. We wouldn’t worry about “euphemiz[ing] bribes as ‘contributions’ to preserve the dignity of lobbyists and legislators.” If our words didn’t have implications, people wouldn’t have to say many of the ridiculous things that Pinker notes in his book–phrases like, “If you could pass the salt, that would be terrific.”

Many times the implications of our words are only conveyed subliminally. For example, when people speak or hear about “the poor,” they often don’t consciously contemplate how the people of the world are being divided into discrete groups.

Talking about the “third world” went out of vogue a while ago–about 20 years ago when the “second world” crumbled. It’s not the preferred nomenclature anymore, and people from Mao Zedong to economist Peter Bauer objected to its usage during the era it was actually used.

Our new terminology in this area may not be any more helpful. In the parlance of our times we talk about the “developing” world, as if the rest of the globe has achieved some sort of societal nirvana. We also now have politically correct terms like “majority world” and “global South.” But how useful is it to talk about the world as if it were binary?

The Economist points out why the the binary view of the world might still make sense in some ways– “Over 1 billion people live on $1.25 or less a day, more than did when the term third world was coined” –but is flawed in other ways– “Many live in countries, like Brazil and India, that seem to have escaped from the third world.”

Yet countries–let alone swaths of the globe–are lumpy and spiky. There’s no ubiquitous set of circumstances that every citizen faces. Whether in Senegal or the United States, the capital city of a given country is generally much much different than a village within the same borders. By the same token, Downtown Dakar is much different than rural West Virginia.

Talking about the “third world” or “developing countries” totally ignores the diversity of circumstances–economic, social, cultural, etc.–of the countries within those groups, let alone the diversity of circumstances within individual countries. The danger of framing the world as binary is that it leads some people to think that one group has things figured out, the other group must be “doing it wrong,” so the first group should go teach the second group how to “do it right.” As a result, many people have a condescending or patronizing view of residents of certain parts of the world, whether or not they’re conscious of it. Then some of those people, with the best of intentions, do dumb things that cause more harm than good.

I understand the efficiency of a two-word phrase and the need to make quick generalizations when speaking about economic development. But language influences perception (and maybe reality, depending on your perception) and consequently influences our thoughts and actions. We shouldn’t lose sight of the implications of the words we choose to use, because they contribute to the way we think about the world and our subsequent actions.

But maybe I’m just off my rocker. They say there really are two types of people in the world: those who think you can divide everyone in the world into two groups, and those who don’t.

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