Life at № 42
Eco died a few days ago. He’s best known as the author of The Name of the Rose, but he was also an exceptional social commentator and philosopher. Among his pearls was a wonderfully sarcastic essay he wrote on political correctness many years ago. I translated it (badly) into English (also many years ago), and here it is again:
“Political Correctness is a true and proper movement. It was born in American universities of liberal and radical inspiration, therefore a movement of the Left, with the aim of acknowledging multiculturalism and reducing some of the ingrained linguistic vices that established lines of discrimination confronting various minorities. The movement began by saying “blacks” and later “African Americans” instead of “ni—r”. Then, “gay” instead of the thousands of other notorious options reserved for disparaging homosexuals.
Naturally, this campaign for the purification of language has produced a genuine fundamentalism, which has led to the notable case in which some feminists have proposed to no longer say “history” since it begins with the pronoun “his”, as they thought this meant that history was “his”. Instead they propose we say “herstory” – her (hi)story – obviously ignoring the Greco-Latin etymology which has no gender implications.
However, the tendency has also assumed neo-conservative, or frankly, reactionary aspects. If you decide to no longer call people in wheelchairs handicapped or even disabled, but “differently-abled” and then you do not construct access ramps in public places, it is evident that you have hypocritically removed the word but not the problem. And the same is true if you substitute saying “indefinitely unoccupied” for fired or “in a program of transition to change careers” for unemployed. Who knows why a banker isn’t ashamed of his title and doesn’t insist on being called an operator in the field of savings. If it’s not working, changing the name won’t fix it.
On these and an infinity of other problems, Edoardo Crisafulli amuses his readers in his book “The Politically Correct and Linguistic Liberty”, which strips naked all of these contradictions. He takes on both sides, pro and con, and is always very entertaining. Reading it, however, I came to reflect on the curious case of our country (Italy). While Political Correctness exploded elsewhere, in our case it was diffused and instead we are always developing more and more Political Incorrectness. If, at one time, one would read a newspaper and a politician would say: “As a politics of convergence is emerging, one would prefer an asymptotic choice that eliminated single points of intersection”; today he prefers to say: “Dialogue? To Hell with that dirty son of a bitch!”
It is true that at one time in old Communist circles they used to label the adversary “horseflies” and in speaking during meetings, they might have chosen to use a lexicon more insulting than that of a sailor, but that was in a time when there were no limits to what one could say – it was accepted as an affectation – as was once the case in the gentlemen’s clubs of venerated memory – where the gentlemen were not verbally inhibited. Today, instead, the technique of an insult is televised, a sign of unconscious faith in the valor of democracy.
It probably began with Bossi (Umberto Bossi of the right-wing Northern League), in which his manly hardness obviously alludes to the softness of other people, and the appellation of “Berluskaz (Berlusconi + Cazzo)” was unmistakable but the thing spread widely. Stefano Bartezzaghi, writing under the name Venerdi di Repubblica, cites the play of insults today in circulation, but in good fun, all things considered.
Therefore, I too must contribute to the sweetness of Politically Incorrect Italian, and as I have consulted a series of dictionaries and dialects, permit me to suggest some polite and good-natured expressions with which to insult your enemy, graceful words: pistola dell’ostrega, papaciugo, imbolsito, crapapelata, piffero, marocchino, pivellone, ciulandario, morlacco, badalucco, pischimpirola …”
Umberto Eco, 2004
Personally, I think this is a discussion society must have with some urgency. Instead of using the tried and tested methods of listening, analysing, considering intent and possible outcomes- we’re descending into a world of automatic categorisations. In America, for example, it seems that any reference to race/ethnicity is deemed racism. Especially if it comes from someone in an opposing ideological group. In the words of Prof. Agre of UCLA:
“… A more complicated example is the word “racist”. Conservative rhetors have tried to take this word away as well by constantly coming up with new ways to stick the word onto liberals and their policies. For example they have referred to affirmative action as “racist”. This is false; it is an attempt to destroy language. Racism is the notion that one race is intrinsically better than another. Affirmative action is arguably discriminatory, as a means of partially offsetting discrimination in other places and times, but it is not racist. Many conservative rhetors have even stuck the word “racist” on people just because they oppose racism. The notion seems to be that these people addressed themselves to the topic of race, and the word “racist” is sort of an adjective relating somehow to race. In any event this too is an attack on language.”
This misuse of politically incorrect has other consequences, some quite vile. Because people seem to be relying on automatic categorizations, it’s possible for certain individuals to say things that are genuinely racist, misogynistic, homophobic or generally xenophobic but word it carefully enough so it falls under the category of politically incorrect. Trump supporters seem to believe that saying banning 1.6 billion Muslims from a country is politically incorrect. It isn’t, it’s bigotry. Politically incorrect was when Joan Rivers used to make holocaust jokes. There’s a difference.