Anti-critical political correctness: Language hygiene Ruthless Criticism

Anti-critical political correctness:
Language hygiene

The language of politics is morally contaminated, particularly for races, nationalities, social groups and statuses. Politicization is and is understood as a sphere of rights and partisanships: Whoever speaks up wants to announce the justice or injustice of a status or collective, thus to obtain a hearing for his partisanship; for their part, readers and listeners look for the identifying signs of partisanship in order to know where they stand with a request to speak. Nicely circular, they compare the detected partisanship of an author with their own sympathizing prejudices or antipathies and accordingly find the statement either agreeable or outrageous. Already, through the choice of label for the various groups, the author signals respect or disdain for those designated by it; from this, the audience already recognizes the represented point of view. The specifically used term of abuse or honorary term substitutes for, and often is, the whole judgment. For example, someone who calls an employer a capitalist confesses that he identifies as a critic of the property-owning class and assumes the exploitation of labor-power; someone who calls a capitalist an entrepreneur puts on record his esteem for the important role of this species, on whose moxie the whole community depends; someone who calls him, in the end, a job creator shows his respect for the social role of the profit-maker expressly in the name of the workers dependent on it. With the word choice, everything is said – and understood.

That’s not our thing. If we explain actions, positions of interests, financial or military conflicts, then we don’t call on any pre-established partisanships for one or another antagonistic party, and we also do not want to end up putting one or the other side in the right and condemning the opposing side in the light of this right. We are not at all fond of honor, whether it’s our own or that of others. We have too much contempt for the roles of the capitalist classes and imperialist actors to want to dishonor somebody according to the standards of their correspondingly noble tasks. Just as little do we want to serve and encourage the addiction to respect and recognition on the part of the general population. That’s why, for us, the designations are of no further importance – to take the worst first, nigger or black, kraut or German, capitalist or entrepreneur achieve the same thing when it’s about nothing but a label. In any case, what we have to say about the designated groups we do not say with the name, but with their attributes and reasons, in short: the analysis. We hope that one does not find our arguments replaced by derogatory or upgrading terms.

At the same time, we can not avoid using the ideologically dirty language. We look for ways to distance ourselves from the incorporated and expected affirmations, as well as the ideological character of many names. We could indeed put every mention of employer, employee, economic mode, defense minister, peace process, and so on, in quotation marks. Without punctuation, the reference to racial and social prejudices turns into an implicit quote, so that only the meaning of the sentence makes it clear that it’s not us who consider immigrants to be wetbacks and welfare recipients to be parasites, but that it’s the bourgeois world that treats them like this, and we expose this. Sometimes we refer to the moral sensitivity of words by adding sharply contrasting attributes, as well as using them in a contradictory way (“bloody peace mission,” “soldiers as election workers,” “proletarian ladies and gentlemen”) or using words in a way that contrasts to the affirmative tendency inscribed in them (“pious anti-imperialism” for Islamist terrorists, “donating democracy to the people of the world” for America’s military interventions). If this language is irritating, perhaps even provocative, that’s good. We try to deflate the self-righteous standpoint that with the declaration of a universally recognized, incontestably positive affirmation, one is deserving of support and has done everything necessary in terms of forming a judgment.

It is different with the use of words like “nigger” or “homo” or a refusal to use or add feminine pronouns when referring to people – it is said that one may not do this, such language puts people off or is even highly offensive. This is evidence of a highly developed sensitivity to political questions of honor – and it is not a venial matter of taste, but a firmly established democratic bad habit.

Take the example of “nigger.” This old word for members of the black race, Latin in origin, meaning nothing other than: niger = Latin for “black,” is perceived as a racist insult; but the analogous use of the word “white” hardly is. The difference has nothing to do with the words and everything to do with the political and social position of the racial groups designated by them: the whites are the upper and ruling layer who are always referred to as a special part of the population. The niggers, former slaves or penniless immigrants are, in the USA as in all capitalist countries, relegated in the majority to the lowest social stratum; sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of blacks live, is the uniformly impoverished region of globalized capitalism. First of all, it is the political-economic world order which assigns these miserable circumstances to the niggers; secondly, it is the racism of a political judgment which then blames them for this position as their shortcoming. As always and everywhere in bourgeois society, whoever fails in competition has exactly this position construed as a result of their lack of talent and intelligence, a missing seriousness and diligence, an inadequate sense of responsibility. His bad social position is justified by a bad opinion about him. He is despised and seen as a creature worthy of contempt. Originally, neutral names for races, peoples, states and social characters that hit rock bottom in the worldwide separation of classes and nations degenerated into contemptuous designations. The word “nigger” shares this fate (more so in the USA than in Europe) with more than a few ethnic names (wogs, kaffirs, gyps), designations for low social status – farmers and proletarians (“you hick!,” “what a peon!”) – and “broads,” “cripples,” and “illegals.”

In our view, it is not the sound, the designation, that is terrible, but rather the thing. That is what deserves to be rectified. Democratically involved modern people have a different view. They pick up on supposedly contemptuous names as an offense against the abstract recognition which everyone in this egalitarian society has a right to, apart from their status and material situation: niggers – one could also say: peons, gimps, wetbacks – “are people too” and as such deserve a respectful name. Their democratic friends confuse cause and effect: they are outraged more about an existing or assumed contempt than about the social relations which force a miserable life on the aforementioned social groups and whose supporters afterwards contemptuously rub their noses in it: “You good-for-nothing!” So new names are searched for the victims which should do one thing and one thing only: deny the contempt that one hears in the once neutral names. Then the language purists make the use of their neologisms the touchstone for political correctness. Everyone has to take off their hat before members of the lower classes and express their respect to excluded foreigners. Then, they believe, the greatest injustice that is inflicted on them has been straightened out and the decisive step against their exclusion already taken.

The intellectual contortions that are due when one makes a question of honor out of each name are simply funny. Because language reform is not of much use if an honorable choice of name should revoke the contempt which applies to the status or individual. The improved name that corrects the derogatory connotations wears out fast just because nothing changes in the thing, the position, and the actual appraisal of the despised person. The history of the decline of “nigger,” which was at first a pronunciation of “negro,” is exemplary: After the ban on the slave word, “colored people” was politically correct, but with it one could soon sense a concealed racism which shirks mention of the disgraceful skin color; then “black,” the word for color, was much better, and in the meantime, one has ended up with “African-American.” “Cripple” became “handicapped” until that too became unbearable and now is called “person with disabilities” so that nobody forgets that the disabled person is a person, and nobody sees the person characterized by his disability, even if his private and social existence is defined by it. For the same reason, foreign contract laborers were just “immigrants,” then “people with immigrant backgrounds.” The wearing-out process of politically correct names undergoes a temporary end only when the despised group adopts one of these names, proudly calls themselves by it, and sees their self-esteem appreciated by the general use of the word. Homosexuals, following the principle of the conversion of all words of shame – like at one time the Black Panthers did with their “Black is beautiful” – raise an especially vicious term of abuse into the new honorary name: They want to be called “queer.” Here one has to be on one’s guard so that one does not miss the turnaround from insult word to honorary title and vice versa. It is definitely confusing when the same word in different mouths sometimes takes one and sometimes another character.

How ineffective it is to protest against language use to improve conditions can be seen most strikingly where it has been successful across the board: with so-called “feminism.” For perhaps 25 years, conscious women have rejected written and even spoken language use that is not “gender inclusive.” They object that “man” should no longer be used for humans in general, and that occupations no longer be designated by gender: neither “fireman,” nor “stewardess” nor “executive chairman.” If a feminine form of address is not used, they feel excluded, not addressed, and in this respect ignored; so language-reforming women and their male sympathizers always mention “she or he” or “s/he,” insisting that the female half of humanity always and everywhere be showed respect. They thus express that sex is the all-important criterion of their own judgment: in the middle of capitalism, with its abstract and egalitarian subjection of humanity under the bourgeois code of law and the rule of money, everything in their world revolves around the battle of the sexes: woman or man – who honors, neglects, dominates whom? The request that honorable mention of the female half of humanity is always and everywhere shown has been granted. The dictionary, a new translation of the Bible “in a fair language,” and even macho conservative politicians bow to this Gessler’s hat of political correctness: politicians especially don't forget to say “his and hers” when they gamble on female approval. Except for the honorific form of address on whose behalf a women’s movement once sallied forth, nothing in the situation of women has improved. On the contrary, during a quarter of a century of liberation, the double burden on women has gotten ever larger with the increase in female professional activity.

In the meantime, the quest for a politically correct language, after a detour through the democratic protest culture, has since “arrived,” namely with the social elite. On behalf of all the degraded and offended, politicians and entrepreneurs protest in public against their less high-ranking fellow citizens being given disparaging designations: one may not say “proletarian” or “lower class”! Here those who profit from the relations of subordination make themselves advocates for the honor of those this system sticks with the shabby role of being an exploited worker or even denies them this dubious privilege. They know that the honor which one puts in oneself as a worker, an unemployed person or anything else is nothing other than a thoroughly positive and affirmative relation to the conditions in which one has wound up: proud workers put up with a lot! The elite promotes addiction to recognition among the worse-off, and in this way once again lays down what they may expect recognition for. A full-fledged human who is properly appreciated as an “employee” doesn’t need to let himself be insulted as “the commodity labor-power”! He may grant that he is one of the dependently employed persons who are not even able to work unless a wealthy person gives them work, but he sees himself just as important as the employer in making sure that “work gets done” in his country. If the ruling power sends such compliments to those it rules, then it voices its satisfaction with how well the subordinated attendants obey orders from above and get them done. At the latest, it should be apparent that the invention and application of politically correct modes of expression not only has nothing to do with a real improved situation for those who get issued nicer names, but wants to know nothing about an abolition of the real relations that those who are honored in such a way have to struggle with.

Naive or calculating, in all the mentioned cases, language hygiene has the character of a defense against undesirable judgments – and indeed they come up without that, much less their reasons. Criticism of the circumstances that people are put in and the roles they play is interpreted as insults to those who bear these roles and thereby rejected. It is not that we supply easy pretexts to reject our arguments, but the resultant rejection searches for these pretexts. No cure has been found against someone reading a text only to find what he searches for in it. And if he searches for whether he finds the expected, customary – politically correct – respect expressed for the shapers and victims of the capitalistically and imperialistically sorted world, then he just discovers that this is not the case. Someone who already doesn’t want to know anything about the reasons why, because he already knows enough, is simply beyond help. That’s why we do not want to bite our tongues in advance and accommodate the censor’s point of view of a language criticism which refuses the content, but doesn’t admit it.

[Translated and adapted from GegenStandpunkt 4-2006]