Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Common Mistake

The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. That is not a question, that is not a guess, it is a fact. Ms. Svoboda made damn sure each one of us knew that before we left her seventh grade social studies class.* Ask any one of my classmates today and there’s a pretty good chance they still have each one of those characters etched in their brains. 4-7-6-A-D. Well, nowadays turns out they’d be wrong.

*“To impress your college professors with,” she said. Guess she didn’t count on me becoming an engineer.

Maybe it’s just semantics, but it’s not AD anymore, it’s CE. Or so I’ve come to realize. No one ever quite came out and told me, but over the past five or ten years, but I’ve gotten the message loud and clear through gentle reminders from textbooks and smug comments from classmates. AD stands for Anno Domini which mean in the year of the Lord. Not everyone believes in God/Christ/etc., therefore it is not politically correct that our secular government and society at large use a notation the implies such a belief. Common Era is just so much more sensitive.

Nevertheless, CE is a cosmetic tweak. WWII still ended in 1945. The Vikings won their last Super Bowl in...never mind. And Rome still fell in 476, it’s just that people don’t have to mention God when they talk about these sorts of things now. As a Catholic, I don’t like that*, but I can at least begin to understand it.** From a political correctness standpoint, AD could be less than desirable. If we are to be sensitive to all peoples, the argument goes, then we must recognize the power of our words and choose them carefully.

*Honestly I feel like Pope Gregory XIII is getting a bit jobbed here. The poor guy goes through all this trouble to invent the calendar and we just step in and change what we feel like willy-nilly. Then again, he’s been dead for nearly a millennium. I suppose he's just unlucky.
**I would, however, like to point out that we are still using the birth of Christ as the benchmark for measuring all time. Gussy it up however you want, we all still know what 0 CE refers to.

So if words must be chosen carefully, then why on Earth did the people in charge of such things go with “Common Era” in the first place? If the Common Era says the year is 2012, what does that mean for the Jews (who date this year as 5772)? Or the Hindus (5113)? Thai (2555)? Muslims (1433)? Chinese (4709)? Koreans (4345)? Ethiopians (2004)? Armenians (1461)? Japanese (Heisei-24)? And those crazy adherents to Julian calendar who are always running 13 days late?

That’s easily over half the world’s population right there, and the only thing they seem to agree on is that it is most definitely not 2012 (except for the Julians, but they think it's still May). The other thing they have in common is that none of them are “western” cultures. Although there are no more religious overtones,* there is a pretty healthy dose of “The West: colonizing your calendars since 1492.”

*Thank God!

So yeah, if anything, denoting 2012 as the “common” year shows intense hubris, not humility. Who’s insensitive now?

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