Another day, another story quoting someone saying that some action or even thought is unacceptable.
I wish to respond all of these people with the kindest intentions by quoting Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride who prompted by another character sputtering the word “inconceivable” repeatedly says, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us much about the origins of the word “accept”: they are multiple, they are partly a borrowing from French and a borrowing from Latin, and they all center around taking or receiving or allowing or even submitting to something willingly.
When one of these earnest and well meaning observers whose aggrievement elicits my sympathy states that a political pronouncement or maneuver is unacceptable, I want to inquire respectfully, ” to whom?”
This concern rises above the pedantic. A pronouncement of unacceptability by the sincere observer often suggests an unfamiliarity with a rather large body of people who will receive — to use the second meaning in the OED — what the designated culprit (politician, actor, singer, corporate honcho, spokesperson, etc. ) is saying or doing with favor or approval. This unfamiliarity in some cases must be deemed denial because ample evidence exists of many citizens who not only accept but endorse the behavior or speech in question.
Why does this matter? Neither side will make progress towards some sort of resolution until they at least acknowledge that acceptability is to a large extent a matter of opinion. Even those instances where laws and regulations are cited as support for the unacceptability of words or deeds, our system of government still makes the final arbitration of acceptability and opinion, only in those circumstances it is the opinion of a judge or judges. In the last 20 years, we have discovered that certainty about those opinions or treating them as if they were concrete realities does not match what actually unfolds in regulatory agencies, state and federal courts, and even in our Supreme Court. Slavery was once acceptable in that latter forum, to employ the most horrible and evil example. Sadly, what is immoral is sometimes acceptable to those in power.
Of course, each one of the speakers or writers that has employed the word unacceptable might have been assuming a prepositional phrase: “to me”. I welcome the sharing of their sentiments, but doubt the difference that they will make on their own. If any of us wish to make some mode of being truly unacceptable then it is our actions to persuade others not to tolerate that mode that matter. And here we have the third meaning of the word 'accept' evoked: we must convince others to make it clear that they will not “endure with patience or resignation” what is going on. Words are not enough and yet words do matter. Terming something unacceptable without then taking some action to change the situation is fruitless. I hope that others will come to appreciate and perhaps even accept the importance of this distinction.