On the value of political correctness
It is an undeniable fact that we now live in a world that is rapidly undergoing profound social change. Although contact between different cultures and peoples has existed for as long as human society itself, it can be said with certainty that the degree to which intercultural contact exists nowadays is unprecedented. Not only the time that takes us to move from one place to another has decreased dramatically, also the relative financial and psychological loads are at an unprecedented low. In other words, we are capable of travelling further, faster, and more cheaply than ever before.
Of course this relative comfort comes at a certain price. Mark Twain is famous for many things, but also for saying that travel is fatal for prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Although I do not doubt that this can be the effect for those doing the travelling, it is different question altogether how this affects the local population. I fear that those who did not reap the benefits of the ongoing fading of the relative importance national borders (in the physical, not the legal sense) find themselves perplexed and frustrated by the apparent fact that the values and customs they grew up with are now considered anathema.
I will freely admit that I am sympathetic to this notion. Although I was born the result of a mixed marriage, my upbringing took place in a white environment. I went to a white school, I had white friends, and I played sports overwhelmingly played by white people (field hockey and tennis). Growing up in this kind of surrounding in the Netherlands during the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, it was relatively easy not to be aware of just how quickly society was changing. Of course, events like the attack on the Twin Towers, and the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh had an impact, although in a sheltered environment it was difficult to judge the effects. As a child, in late November and early December I looked forward to celebrating Sinterklaas, a traditional holiday that has recently come under serious criticism due to the fact that the Saint’s servants evidently represent Africans. Logically, I joined many of my compatriots in collective (bemused) outrage when it was brought to our attention that our beloved tradition contained racist elements. We would consider ourselves victims and we wallow in our self-pity. Self-pity is a very comfortable state to be in. This same kind of idea, that it is actually “us” who are being victimized is visible in many places in the world: one can still find it in the Lost Cause narrative in the American South, in the expansionist rhetoric of post-Soviet Russia, and among various groups, ranging from political Islamists to the European New Right. These narratives are all loaded with the notion that “we are unjustly victimized and are simply trying to restore the status quo”.
As a result this frustration, undoubtedly borne from a sense of societal loss of direction is channelled towards whatever considered responsible or representative of this loss, either the “media” or “the government” or something related. The notion being that there is a “ban” (although poorly enforced) on words considered offensive. These words can vary from place to place and in perceived degree of offensiveness, but for now I will tak ethe word negro – neger in Dutch, neeger in Estonian. The idea is that the word, when speakers of these two languages learned it, was not considered offensive and that it is only due to “political correctness” that we can no longer use it. Some of the more intellectually minded defenders of this word will argue that the original word “simply means black”. The fact that this is a poor argument should be clear to anyone, so I will not even discuss it further.
However, it is obvious to anyone that the vast majority of people who use this word this word will not see any legal repercussions for its usage, as it rightly should be. I do not believe that what is and what is not considered offensive is something that is possible to regulate by law. What is considered offensive is and must remain the domain of civil society, and it must be the unalienable right of every individual to use whatever words they want, regardless of their perceived offensiveness. However, this is where the crux of the matter lies: although the right to use such vocabulary is reserved to everyone; they have duty – not a legal, but a societal one – to account for this. In short, it is the right of every individual to decide whether or not they want to participate in polite society.