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No BC and AD? That Spells Culture War

The sensitivity police arrest our calendar.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

March 7, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Among the justifications the textbook offers for using BCE/CE is that “BC and AD were not used regularly until the end of the eighteenth century. BCE and CE became common in the late twentieth century.” Hmmm. When I searched for “Anno Domini” in books published before 1700, I found 51,700 results. Considering the number of books published before 1700, that’s pretty amazing. (The Latin equivalent of BC, ante Christum natum, is, admittedly, far less common.) More importantly, when precisely did BCE become “common” in the late twentieth century? I suppose if you were writing for a history journal, or for an audience that included large numbers of people who do not regularly use BC/AD, then using politically correct terminology such as BCE/CE makes sense — but in a freshman college text intended for the North American market? No.

It’s not even as if the new abbreviations are really more inclusive. BCE and CE are exactly the same years as BC and AD. They are still putting a stake in the ground around the guessed year of birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and measuring time relative to that same year. The only way in which this qualifies as “multicultural” is that it will not offend any prickly Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, or others upset that you are “privileging” Christianity by saying AD instead of some freshly minted abbreviation capable of doing nothing more than signaling one’s sensitivities.  (The prickly forms of most of these groups seem to exist more in the fever swamp imaginations of academics than anywhere that I have ever been.)

Yet, the conscious decision to change over will offend the still-large majority of Americans who culturally or religiously identify themselves as Christians.

Admittedly, we are not going to cut off the heads of any professors, or even any hands, so perhaps offending us doesn’t much matter.

But there’s another group that should be offended: those who consider communication important. If I were living in a country where BC and AD were not commonly used, and I wanted to write something that ordinary people would understand, I would take care to put dates in the local system. If were I living in Britain, I would spell appropriately for my audience: colour or italicise, and I would “go to hospital” not “go to the hospital” because my goal is to communicate with minimum distraction. In a textbook aimed at college freshmen, using the less common abbreviations is a form of distraction from the point of the book: to teach history.

Or is it a form of culture war?

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Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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