In the far north of Scandinavia, live people called Lapps. In a large country in central Europe, live people called Germans. The Lapps do not call themselves Lapps any more, it seems. The Germans do not call themselves Germans. Political correctness now demands that I change my habits, and start calling the Lapps Sami. Political correctness is inconsistent, however, and allows me to call Germans Germans.
In the reporting of the current conflict in Afghanistan, the city of Kabul gets mentioned in many news reports. Occasionally, some straight-talking and brave reporter uses the English pronunciation, Ka-BULL, but most reporters have yielded to the dictates of the BBC pronunciation unit, and have started calling it KAR-ble. The argument for the new pronunciation is that it is the pronunciation which some of the locals there use (not all, since there are a few languages and dialects in Afghanistan). Hitherto, the British have called Kabul “Ka-BULL” and this has caused no problems at all. Now, there are people who want to make something of it.
Newsreaders are not expected to call Germany “Deutchland”, and are happy to say “Paris”, rather than “La Paree”. Meanwhile the French consistently refer to England as “Angleterre”, and to the best of my knowledge, it never occurs to any of us here to consider this insulting or oppressive of them.
There are many other examples I could cite. Peking is now supposedly Beijing, Eskimos are now Inuit (even when one is actually referring to the particular tribe called the Eskimo). I believe that we should have the straightforward confidence and decency to use our own names for people and places, and that the only risk of causing real offence comes from the people who insist otherwise.
The reasons for the changes of names have nothing to do with genuine politeness, and much to do with political influence. China, possibly the world’s most imperialist nation*, likes to have means of complaining about other (past) imperial nations, and so can score political points by insisting, pathetically, on Beijing, not Peking (despite Peking’s also being a Chinese name - it's just a different transliteration of the same word). We can play their game, or choose not to.
My guess is that no one at present in Afghanistan cares at all whether I say Ka-BULL or KAR-ble. Perhaps in a year or two, when they have had the distinction pointed out to them, they might be educated to get touchy about it. A British person talking to me may insist that I say KAR-ble, but this will not be to please the Afghans. When I have a private conversation with a fellow Brit, there is no opportunity to offend an Afghan. The reason the Brit might make the distinction is to try to gain some moral or intellectual high ground. By drawing attention to my supposed mispronunciation of the city’s name, he is suggesting that I am a rude and ignorant man. I could play his game, change my habits, bend to his will, and then again I could tell the git to get stuffed. I know which way my inclination lies.
I am told that these days the Lapps have started to get shirty about whether people say Lapp or Sami. This is a case of the small group trying to get power over the larger by claiming some degree of oppression, and insisting that the larger changes its habits as some sort of pointless and ultimately denigrating concession. Denigrating to the Lapps, I mean. A Swede recently advised me to use Sami, and yet she was happy to hear me say “Sweden” instead of Swerge. Whether the Swedes start calling the Lapps Sami or not is their own affair, but it is a game I will not play, and I would advise them not to play.
Imagine that you are a child in a classroom. All the kids call each other all manner of names, some friendly, some insulting, some chosen by those named, some thrust upon them. One day the teacher stands up and addresses your class and says that while everyone is free to call anyone else whatever they like, no one must call you anything other than some name which you have decided on for yourself, (Martin, perhaps) because you get very upset otherwise. What does this do for your standing, and your self respect? Everyone else has to roll with the punches, but you are the exception, the teacher’s protected one, and are a special case. Imagine that the kids now all change their habits and start calling you Martin. What tone of voice will the little darlings adopt while forming this new word, “Martin”? Will it be an admiring and respectful one? Not a chance.
The French don’t mind being called French. They know that this is simply the English word for them. To get upset about it would be as rational as being upset that we say bicycle instead of velo. They are a big and confident enough nation not to care that some other people somewhere else use a different word to name them. There comes a time, though, in the history of certain peoples, when they decide that they are not simply some people living in a country which is smaller than some neighbouring one, but that they are oppressed. To claim oppressionhood has a few effects. It fosters hatred of outsiders, which one might argue is bad. It turns the perhaps once proud people into child-like folk who must be coddled by the big bad parent nation. It gives some of the people within the small nation influence over their fellows, but I would call this a nefarious influence. In the long term, it makes the people laughable. It saps their dignity, and plants seeds of resentment, self-pity, and perceived inferiority in them which makes them lesser people.
Political correctness, though, is nothing new. I’m sure that people millennia ago worked out that one way to gain influence is to play this card. The Scottish dislike of the English is not very recent, and is fueled by this sort of nonsense. One recent development, is that the Scots have decided that things from their land are no longer to be called Scotch, but are now only to be called Scottish. The only reason for this I know of is that they want every opportunity to impose their will on others. I have heard Scots describe Scotland as “oppressed”. If ever a Scot does this to you, challenge him to name five less oppressed countries than Scotland. This is certainly a challenge, and probably impossible. I like the Scots, and I like Scotland. One irritating thing about them, though, is that so many of them play the daft English-oppression card, and claim victimhood. Victims are not attractive and likeable, nor admirable, for being victims. I’d far rather meet and talk to a Scot who speaks comfortably in his own accent, is happy to be a Scot, and who just gets on with life, than one for whom his Scottishness is some anger-invoking issue.
A word that simply describes you is only insulting to you if the person you are is bad. If you are bad, then surely you deserve to be insulted, and I would rather that you become good than merely change your name. If you are a good person, then the word which names you is simply a word which names you. A name is a word useful for referring to things. The word negro is seldom used these days, despite its being a useful accurate and unambiguous one which names a type of person. If someone tells you that you should not use the word, then they are, more powerfully than anyone else, suggesting that there is something shameful about being negroid. Is there? If there isn’t, then there can be no offence in using the perfectly good word. The word black by contrast has many negative connotations (black market, black magic, black-leg, blackmail), and, perhaps worse than that, is very ambiguous, since some people include Indians as “blacks” and some don’t (a useless fix for this is to called Indians “Asians”, but “Asians” includes the Chinese). I am a Caucasoid, and you can call me that a thousand times without causing offence. It happens to be true. So what?
In case you misunderstand me, I should make it clear now that I am not meaning that words cannot be used offensively. Of course they can. Were I to run up to a Lapp and shout nastily at him, “Oi! You Lapp, you great stupid Lapp [etcetera]” then I might be able to cause offence, and be deservedly punched in the face. What is offensive, however, is not the word “Lapp”. That is just a sound. What is offensive is the obvious intention to offend. I would extend this logic to all words, though of course people are touchier about some words more than others.
My attitude on this matter affects whether I say “actor” or “actress”. The current politically-correct doctrine is that “actor” is correct for all professionals in the theatre, regardless of sex. There is no surer way to implant in people's minds the notion that there is something lesser about actresses. If someone insists that an actress be called an “actor”, then they make their deeply-held view clear: that actresses are less good in some way than actors. Given that the only difference is their sex, this further means that women are lesser than men. Is that what you think? If not, then have the good grace to call an actress an “actress”. This extends to “sculptress”, and all the rest.
In Newcastle is a shop called Fenwicks. It is the local equivalent of Harrods. Every year at Christmas, the shop puts up a spectacular window display which runs the full length of the shop, and it draws appreciative crowds. One year, to be different, the theme was a jungle one. At one end of the window, Father Christmas sat in a bamboo hut, with bright tropical parrots helping him to sort the letters from children all round the world. There were many other animals in the display, some in human clothing, some not, some doing human-like things, some not, but all being terribly friendly in each others’ proximity. Only someone tremendously stupid could for one instant have believed that the scene was meant to be a realistic one. Part of the display included some monkeys in grass skirts, playing the drums. A group of students from Newcastle University took it upon itself to go to Fenwicks and complain. Their complaint was that the display was racist.
It takes a certain sort of twisted mind to see the racism in that display. It takes a racist mind. The display was not racist at all. It showed monkeys in grass skirts playing the drums. The bungling students had made the connection that the monkeys looked like negroes, and that drum playing is laughable and primitive, and that negroes are therefore laughable and primitive (or something). A person without a racist mind would have seen that display and thought, “Oo, look at the funny monkeys!” and moved on. Did the racist students think that the parrots were an insult to postmen? Oddly enough, no. If the monkeys had had white fur, would they have complained that this was insulting to pale-skinned British types? My guess is that the thought wouldn’t have occurred to them.
I am happy to report that the manager of Fenwicks ignored the protests of those idiotic students, and that the display was unchanged. One could say that the students were merely laughable. I would argue, however, that in the long term, this sort of thing is very pernicious.
In Britain, there are many types of people. Some of these types have been in Britain for countless generations, while others are comparative newcomers. Part of being British is to tell jokes a lot, and to make fun of each other. Humour is very important for showing acceptance. Insults are too. There is no greater insult to someone than to ignore them totally. If I hurl insults at my enemies, I am showing the world that my enemies are powerful enough and important enough to me that I bother going to this effort. If society doesn’t like you much, it might sneer a bit at you, and you may hear the odd insulting remark. If society really hates you, it will shun you totally. Imagine that within Britain there is some type of person whom it becomes illegal to tell jokes about, illegal to portray in any way, and illegal to insult. Will this type of person ever stand a chance of being accepted on friendly terms as part of British society? Of course not.
When the British have accepted you completely, they show this by taking the piss out of you a lot. They will like you more if you can see your own funny side. When the police were looking for the “Yorkshire Ripper”, they asked an expert what sort of man they should be looking for. “One with no sense of humour,” was the advice. Sure enough, when he was eventually caught, it turned out that he had been interviewed a few times by police, and each report remarked on the fact that the man appeared to have no sense of humour at all. In Britain, there is no worse thing to be accused of than having so sense of humour. People who can weather all manner of insults, will defend themselves against that accusation. A man might be called every nasty name under the sun, and these insults might bounce off him and provoke no response. If he is accused of having no sense of humour, he will say something like, “Yes I do. It’s just not the same as yours,” or, “Rubbish - I need a good sense of humour to put up with listening to you,” or just as likely, this will be the one insult which finally moves him to anger. No one can survive socially if it is widely believed that he has no sense of humour, and so this is the one accusation which will be always be defended against.
So I suggest that we should have the strength of character and basic decency to use simple words simply. If you hear someone describe you with a word that you’re not used to, have the strength of character and basic sense of humour to deal with it. And remember, if you ever hear someone saying that something or someone is sexist or racist or nationalist or something, then this is the surest sign that the speaker is that thing which he accuses others of.
* China is an Empire, and has been for thousands of years, consisting of several large areas with populations speaking different languages (Manchurian, Cantonese, Mandarin etc.). It has colonised Tibet in recent times, and is working on Nepal. It makes belligerent claims on Taiwan, and has long sought to gain or keep influence in Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, and pretty much everywhere else in that part of the world. When Chinese insult someone as an “Imperialist”, they really are demonstrating that they haven’t a clue what the word means.