Friday, July 08, 2005

Cartography of Political Correctness

A friend who resides in Norway recently communicated some disturbing information about legal steps to restrict freedom of speech in several Western European countries, based on presumed offenses to ethnic sensibilities. It might be thought that we manage these things better in the United States. To the extent that the First Amendment to the Constitution provides a protective bulwark, that may be so. However, these trends in Europe reflect our own accumulated repertoire of political correctness. In others words, the rhetoric and rationale for these unfortunate European developments are "made in USA."

Since the sixties America has served as the great laboratory of Political Correctness. To be sure, the ingredients stem from several sources, and their trajectory can be quite complex. The French term *chauviniste stems from a fictional character, a Napoleonic soldier noted for his exaggerated nationalism, or jingoism. Denouncing "Great Russian chauvinism," which favored the dominant group in their country, the early Bolsheviks gave the c-word an ethnic twist. Through left-wing channels the epithet made its way into our repertoire of feminist invective: "male chauvinist pig."

Let us note some other examples. In Spanish, the term *macho simply means "male"; in borrowing the word we gave it the meaning of an exaggerated male assertiveness, replacing the rather tame "he-man." The term "multiculturalism" is an import Pierre-Eliot Trudeau’s Canada. Yet much of the material comprising these rich linguistic resources is native, including that insidious weasel wording "affirmative action," a euphemism invented in 1965. All these things came together in the United States as a byproduct of the efforts towards social change that emerged in the sixties: the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay and lesbian movement.

A good place to test this symbiosis of American origination, on the one hand, and European copying and adaptation, on the other, is the French-language sphere, which presents elements of resistance as well as acceptance. In other words, if the made-in-America version of PC can succeed in France, ever wary of "Anglo-Saxon" domination, it can succeed anywhere. Before embarking on the jolly tour that lies ahead, note the following features. First, there is French linguistic purism, which seeks to replace imports with naive equivalents (thus *olduc for pipeline; and *ordinateur for computer). As we shall see, this resistance is breaking down--though it remains a potent factor in some quarters. Moreover, until recently the French have been reluctant to admit that they had any ethnic minorities, despite a large and growing Muslim population from North Africa (the *Beurs). As la Grande Nation came tardily to this recognition, much of the French rhetoric of ethnic assertion and sensitivity inevitably assumed a plumage borrowed from North America. As regards women, though, the French pioneered their own version with the writings of such figures as Simone de Beauvoir and the lesbian theorist Monique Wittig. (Significantly, the latter lived in the US for a number of years.)

As a rule, words with Latin and Greek roots have an easier time making their way across the Atlantic (*patriarcal, *ethnocentrisme ). Sometimes, though, defying injunctions against *franglais, the English expression is purloined just as it is, as in *DWEM and *PC (pronounced pi ci).

We may start with some dos and don’ts. Ever acknowledging that we live in an ethnic *saladier (melting pot), we must resolve to be *politiquement correct at all times. Ever sensitive to *différence, one must positively embrace *diversité. More than sentiment is required. One must practice, as much as possible, *discrimination positive (affirmative action, though French law grants it less scope).

The list of prohibitions is much more extensive. As in North America *harcèlement sexuel (sexual harassment) has expanded to include glances interpreted as hostile and “inappropriate laughter. Travel for its own sake is frivolous, though *écotourisme in to be commended.

*Sexisme was an early import into French, now supplemented by *hétérosexisme. *Ageisme is another no-no, as is discrimination against *les handicapés, who are, luckily for them, "personnes dotées de capacités différentes."

*Machisme, reflecting its naturalization in the US, appeared in 1971.

*Homophobie (invented in North America, 1972) is the most prominent of the phobias. Some of us, it appears, are guilty of *homophobie intériorisée. Above all, we must encourage *les gays dans leur *coming out.

The French are said to suffer less from obesity than other nations, but they have their share of the weight-challenged. In dealing with such people one must avoid any temptation to *grossophobie.

Care must be taken not to designate ethnic groups by “outside” names. Thus *Sami and *Inuit are to be preferred to Lapp and Eskimo. On a hot day be sure to demand an *Inuit Glacée ("Eskimo Pie"). To ignore this rule to commit the fault of *exonomie or inappropriate naming. *Gay(e) is in effect a return import from English, though in French (gai) it never had a sexual meaning. In some cases abusive terminology can be tolerated if it is embraced by the groups themselves; thus *rital (wop) and *prolo (redneck). As with the n-word on these shores, recourse to such words is restricted members of the group so designated.

The English-language import *black is now widespread for French residents of sub-Saharan African origin.

A good indication of the scope of this lexicographic jungle comes from an entry translated from André Santini’s useful dictionary of such expressions. "WESTERN CIVILIZATION: An obscenity designating a system intended to promote bourgeois values, while keeping the victims of oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a state of permanent subjection. Western civilization, also termed eurocentrism, relies upon other fallacious notions, such as objectivity, reason, science, and universalism. This system is maintained by the dominance of evil DWEMs."

French feminism has shown some independent linguistic creativity, as *phallocrate (male chauvinist). This may be extended into a general attack on "male" logic: *phallogocentrisme.

A similar demonstration could be undertaken for other major European languages. In any event, the above examples suffice to show that the French have been apt pupils of lessons administered from the other side of the Atlantic.


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