Inappropriate Is the New Black(list)

03/25/2015 10:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2015

My husband and daughter first alerted me to how I was using the word. I was assigning it moral connotations. I turned "inappropriate" into a gentle but effective means of correction. "It's inappropriate to wear such short shorts to school." "It's inappropriate to open the refrigerator in someone else's home without asking." "It's inappropriate to show up for a dinner party without a bottle of wine." I became the enforcer of the principles of good upbringing. Our kitchen bulletin board displays a copy of Rules of Etiquette for A Good Guest published as a newspaper ad by none other than the jewelry company Tiffany.

Maybe my sensitivity to the misuse of the word comes from my attachment to it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective inappropriate as "not suitable or proper in the circumstances," as in "there are penalties for inappropriate behavior." So, according to the OED (paragon of grammar and meaning) what is deemed inappropriate depends on the circumstances. Inappropriateness is a context-driven assessment.

Rules of the game, or questions of etiquette and propriety, will always be subject to the situation. What was inappropriate in the first season of Downton Abbey became proper by the fourth season. Egads, in the 1920s, the Grantham men are no longer wearing white tie and tails to dinner!

In our present decade of the 21st century, the rules and codes of etiquette we cherish on Masterpiece Theater have been swept out to sea. And yet, that word creeps in all of the time. Is it appropriate dress code for pre-pubescent girls to wear stilettoes and mini skirts to a bat mitzvah? Is it appropriate for an eight-year-old to sleep in his parents' bed after a nightmare? Is it appropriate to call your child's teachers by their first names? We're constantly assessing the psychological and social codes of our age.

I have seen how the word can be used to do damage. It has nothing to do with girls and how they dress. Yes, my teenage daughter rolls her eyes when I comment that a particular outfit may be inappropriate, but she knows that I support her right and freedom as a young woman to express herself and dress however she pleases. When I suggested this past Saturday that jeans were too casual for religious services, she changed her outfit. I acquiesce that when it comes to parties, knock-off Hervé Léger bandage dresses are standard. It's a delicate balance, but I respect her right to dress as she sees fit.

This past week, I saw the word inappropriate used in more dangerous ways.

I have never told my children that reading a book is inappropriate. If something they read is difficult, I trust they will ask me about it. Through their questions, observations and our conversation, we all grow. Sometimes, when they have encountered scenes in movies, television or books that are more violent or sexual than they could absorb, they turned away, shielding themselves from material. Other times, when confronting difficult stories and facts -- of the Holocaust, of rape, of cancer, of 9/11 or of bullying for example -- they have their parents and teachers to explain the facts, to explore the issues raised, and to assure them of both their safety and the external reality in which we live. As much as we try to direct early readers to age-appropriate material, "inappropriate" is a word that should send up hazards when used about book choices.

I say this based on a recent unfortunate series of events, in which the word "inappropriate" has been used to claim moral righteousness and developmental sensitivity. In fact, the misuse of the word has revealed that even a liberal community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan can resemble the small town that has prohibited rock music and dancing in the 1984 film Footloose.

I learned about a parent who is angry about certain texts his child has encountered in middle school. Two of the offending books included the Newberry award-winning book Catherine, Called Birdy and Nobel-prize winner Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye. The parent felt the materials were inappropriate. The teachers -- experienced and thoughtful professionals who are acutely aware of the developmental and cognitive challenges of the age group -- felt differently. They selected their curriculum based on years of scholarship and work with middle school children. However, the outraged parent chastised the school and its teachers through repeated emails. He then reported the school to the authorities and a punitive investigation commenced. Watching the process unfold has shown me that the forces of censorship can cloak themselves in my beloved term "inappropriate" to further their cause.

It was a teacher from this school who wisely observed that: "inappropriate is the new code word for subversive." Paintings that that were restricted for being "subversive" supposedly threatened some moral code. Book burnings have been fueled by claims that the fires cleanse us of evil ideas and threatening words. Censorship often cloaks itself in righteousness and protection of the young, the innocent, and the vulnerable.

Our dress codes will always be changing. Maybe, in some contexts, you can walk into a friend's house, open the fridge without asking, and grab a soda. But hopefully our ability to read all texts, stories and words -- no matter how disturbing -- will remain an unceasing principle of education. Of course educators must think about the developmental needs and abilities of their students as they make curriculum choices. But chastising educators for assigning "inappropriate" books leads us down a dangerous path. Only by facing difficulty and learning through words, books, discussion, and open thought will we truly have an appropriate society.