Monday, July 16, 2007

Language, Reality and Political Correctness


I got to be honest. I am not a linguist and this posting might well be out of my intellectual / professional depth. I take the idea of political correctness not as a swear word but as something desireable. Political correctness, as I understand it, simply means in the context of language that I should (must?) not denigrate usual suspect types folks (ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, women, and so on and so forth) by means of language. So, I wouldn't call a black person a 'nigger' or a gay person a 'faggot' because these terms are rightly considered offensive. In a civilised society we should not call each other names like that. One thing that always puzzled me about this is, where one should reasonably draw the line on this. Is it acceptable to call heterosexual folks 'breeders' or 'potential breeders'? Or is that just as unacceptable as calling gay folks 'perverts'?
Here's an interesting piece from South Africa. Lupi Ngcayisa, a black radio DJ referred to blacks in some context as 'kaffirs'. Well, 'kaffir' is a racist slur used (so wiki sez) most often by white South Africans to describe black people or people with darker skin colour. Kaffir is also used by Jamaican Indians to describe African Caribbeans in a derogatory manner. It's clear then that 'kaffir' is historically a racist swear word. This probably is a good reason for not using such terminology. South Africa's Human Rights Commission, if the just mentioned article is to be believed, has issued a list of words that are unacceptable in post-apartheid South Africa.
So far so good. Here's the twist. I'm sure most of us, at one point or other, will have heard African Americans referring to other black people as 'niggers'. Similarly, gay people have chosen a long time ago to use swear words deployed against them and change their meanings by giving positive connotations to them. So, you'd find in Germany gay folks referring to each other as 'schwul' or 'warmer bruder'. This terminology until just a few decades ago would have been considered derogatory and people described as 'schwul' would have taken offense. This is not so any longer. German gay people have succeeded in transforming the meaning of 'schwul' into something positive, into something affirmative. In fact, it is politically correct these days in Germany to refer to gay people (well, certainly gay men) as 'schwul'.
There's interesting questions arising from this: If particular terminology is considered derogatory, and racist, should we really deploy legislation to outlaw the use of such language? If we do, should we make exceptions for people from designated groups who might wish to refer to themselves in such language (probably with a view toward changing the meanings of the terminology in question). If we did that, should we review the utilisation of particular terminology in regular intervals so that we're able to accommodate changes in the meanings of such words? Who is 'we? And how should such changes of meaning come about if we may not to use such words to begin with? Aren't we putting an artificial hold on how certain terms of popular language are allowed to evolve?
In any case, this is what happened recently in South Africa. A black guy was censored for using racist terminology to describe people of his ethnic group. If a gay person like myself referred to himself as a 'pervert' (as I have done, jokingly, often) should he/she be equally censored?

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