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When Saying Something is "Dirty"

Thoughts on the Words dirty or filthy

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While traveling and living abroad, many people I have been around will say something is dirty or filthy. At first I would chime in with these comments because I agreed. But one day I was having a conversation with a Chinese friend of mine and she got very upset by the foreigners calling China dirty. She would agree that the country wasn't very clean compared to most USA cities, where she had lived for 6 years. But at the same time she did not like the comment of her home country being called dirty.

I started think more about what it means to call something "dirty" and what that word implies. Once I did more thought about, I started to come to some interesting conclusions. The question if something is dirty or filthy is difficult. The first is the basic question of hygiene and public safety. But having your house a little dusty does not make it a public safety disaster but can make it dirty. Then the big questions is when does something being "dirty" cross the line from being a hygiene/public safety concern to being a moral judgement or going beyond someone's personal comfort zone.

Many times I am around people in different countries and they say something like "that is so dirty!" Therefore implying that it is unhygienic. An example would be a Mongolian family drying the remains of a sheep inside their home. Yes, maybe in a wetter warmer climate that would be unhygienic but in the Mongolian climate the likely hood of the meat spoiling is pretty low, and the spread of disease by fly's is also pretty low. I have made similar observations in China. During the winter time, in the Shanghai area, right when the temperature is hovering around freezing, locals will dry meat on their balconies or even in the hallways of an apartment building.

Now to many westerners this would seem gross or dirty. But once again is it unhygienic? Does this cause danger to public health and safety? Personally I don't know, but i don't think it does. These are issue that have to be weighed when approaching the issue of what people think is dirty.
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An example can come from American history. After the vacuum cleaners and modern cleaning products where introduced into people lives (mainly women) you would think women would get more free time? NO! The opposite happened, women's free time went down because a higher standard had been set because of the new cleaning products. The affect was even worse on families that could not afford the new products, because in order to appear "clean" these women had to work even harder. Because appearing "dirty" would make them appear in a lower social economic group.

An invention that was suppose to save time actually did not. As I said before having a little dust in your home is not dangerous to most people's health. Also what is considered clean or dirty changes greatly depending on culture. For a Thai family the idea of wearing shoes indoors is horrific. Outside of major cities in Thailand most places, unless outdoors, will require you to take your shoes off. This even includes grocery stores, bars and restaurants. Even though there might be raw human waste on the street, the floor inside a shop will be spotless.

What is the point of all this? The point is there are real public health concerns that come from not being dirty. But the one question people must ask themselves before they judge something as dirty is whether or not it is a health risk. Or just an issue with personal comfort. Because if it is an issue with personal comfort then the statement should be stated that way. It is very easy for the word "dirty" to appear as a form of neo-imperialism even if the speaker does not mean it. Because, the word dirty, or filthy, carry's a judgement to it with certain implications. Even if the speaker does not mean to be judgmental by using the word "dirty," the word still implies those judgments.

Now there are many instances in the third world where there are huge hygiene/public health concerns. And if that is the issue, maybe we should all just say "I think all that waste behind that building is a public health concern." Instead of saying "it is really dirty behind those buildings." Which one do you think sounds better?

Michael Wright Johnson

Posted by Lavafalls 13:56 Tagged educational

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