Thursday, May 3, 2012

Revisiting The Question Of Whether To Say "Herbal Tea"

Back in early 2010, I wrote a post Is Herbal Tea Tea? in which I explain. Recently, I read a post Let’s go there, shall we? on Joie de Tea, which expressed a similar sentiment. However, this post gets into an interesting aspect of this terminology, the question of inclusiveness vs. divisiveness:

...I regularly see people having other people jump down their throats before they can even have a sip of their lovely herbal tea, because the herbal-tea-drinking people called it tea rather than a tisane or an infusion. How tedious.

Let’s be inclusive, not divisive...

I found this post resonated with me quite deeply, not just because I also call these drinks "herbal teas", but because I could relate to the question of inclusiveness. I also get a gut feeling of some sort of exclusivity or snobbishness when I hear people forcefully insist on the correctness of the terms "tisane" or "herbal infusion", and even more so when they frame their statements in the negative, insisting on the "wrongness" of the term "herbal tea", or, in the most extreme cases, making personal attacks on people who use the phrase "herbal tea", such as by claiming that they "don't know anything about tea".

Why do I react this way? Experience with other pushy groups sheds some light:

Language is complex and dynamic. The meaning and connotations of words evolve over time, and even at a given time, not all people will use the same word a certain way. Furthermore, many words have specialized meanings within certain subcultures. Often, these "subcultures" can constitute people of a particular political ideology, or of particular religious beliefs.

There's nothing wrong with having specialized terminology, when it is necessary. But specialized language and jargon can cause harm in several ways. One way such language can go wrong is when it is used to exclude others, such as when people are judged by whether or not they follow the linguistic conventions of a small subculture (even when those conventions go against the usage of similar words in mainstream society). Another way in which language can go wrong is when it is used to push an ideology onto someone else.

Examples of pushy language:

An example of pushy political language would be how far-right conservatives describe as "socialist" any more liberal policy which they disagree with, or how far-left liberals might describe as "reactionary" or "facist" any conservative policy they disagree with. These uses of language, which differ from the widely-accepted definitions of these terms, serve to advance the agenda of the person using them, because they paint the opposing viewpoint in a negative light. Religion can also be one of the biggest offenders when it comes to using these sorts of negative labels (think "unbelievers", "heretics"); I am confident you can think up many of your own examples here.

Pushy language, in religion, politics, and other spheres, is usually much more subtle. One Philosophy or movement that I find uses language in ways I react negatively to is Ayn Rand's Objectivism. This movement uses language in several non-standard ways: one, the choice of name implies that the philosophy itself is objective--rather than having a neutral name and allowing people to choose for themselves whether or not they personally find the philosophy to be objective. Secondly, the philosophy uses certain words, like selfishness, quite differently from the mainstream uses of these words. The word "selfish" has a strong negative connotation in mainstream society, yet within the "Objectivist" philosophy it has a positive connotation.

Non-standard uses of language can restructure a person's value system:

I find these non-standard uses of language to be pushy because they can restructure a person's value system without their consent. When people begin to use language in a different way, it changes how they think. I am a huge believer in continuously questioning your beliefs, but I believe that people reach healthier conclusions when they question their beliefs consciously, rather than allowing their beliefs to be unconsciously restructured through processes like using special jargon. I find this to be a particular matter of concern because groups often choose their jargon or special language in such a way as to promote their own agenda (like the political examples above). When people allow for their beliefs to be restructured unconsciously, they open themselves up to being influenced by people or groups who would manipulate them for profit or gain, against the person's best interest, and also in potentially untruthful ways.

I think that this potential for unconscious manipulation of value systems is a very legitimate reason that people have for reacting negatively and defensively to language that is used in non-standard ways.

The religious group my friends and I are in the process of founding has discussed these issues at length. From the start, there was a strong resolve in our group to do everything we could to avoid being pushy or overstepping people's boundaries in attempts to advance our views. Because of this, one of the core rules of communication that we agreed upon was to Use language and definitions based on societal consensus. We are hoping that this rule, which few groups of any sort embrace as centrally as we do, will help us to create a novel religious organization that will succeed at avoiding the pitfalls of pushiness more successfully than past organizations have done.

Back to tea: what exactly is the mainstream definition of tea?

The mainstream definition of tea is a broad one. The word tea is not only used to refer to true teas, but also to a wide variety of other beverages prepared in the same manner as true tea. You can check the definition of tea, which pulls from a number of different mainstream dictionaries, to verify this. The strict definition of tea as only referring to true teas made from the Camellia sinensis plant is one that is only agreed upon in a small subculture.

In conclusion: yes, I do think that insisting "tea" only be used to refer to true tea is divisive:

I hope I have convinced some people that there is indeed something inherently divisive about insisting that the word "tea" only be used to refer to true tea. I am a huge advocate for pure teas, and I have done and continue to do a lot of things to promote them, both in terms of sharing them with my friends, in terms of what I recommend to others, and in terms of how RateTea is structured. But I think that when people get too pedantic about the use of the term "tea", it actually harms this cause. It makes people react defensively, and it creates an inclusion-exclusion dynamic. This sort of decision harms the advancement of tea culture, and, if carried out in a business context, is a bad business decision because it can alienate potential customers.

You don't need to use the word "herbal tea". If you don't like it, then use whatever other term you'd like (tisane, herbal infusion, etc.). But, if you're going to criticize the use of this term, be mindful of how this criticism will be may be having the opposite effect that you actually want to have!

1 comment:

  1. I feel there isn't really not much to debate whether "herbal" should be called "tea". Whether or not one likes it, people have been calling it "herbal tea" all the time and it can't be banned :-p I have a book about Chinese herbal tea therapy, and it was the one I chose from dozen or so books on this topic. Even tea itself is an "herbal" tea :-p