Or on the abuse of language
The word anxiety appears a lot in ordinary language. It is a neat, Latinate word, and therefore sounds, somehow, more sophisticated than its Germanic near-synonym, angst. Yet, people’s fascination with the word anxiety is not related so much to its origins, obviously, as but the idea behind anxiety as a social practice, as legible information, and as affect. It can be, perhaps, attributed to the introduction of commercial psychopharmacology in the 1990s that conversations about mental health have become more common place in American life, words like “anxiety” and “depression” losing the clinical or philosophical power to which they have been traditionally ascribed and becoming, somehow, talking points in ordinary conversation. “I was so depressed after watching The Grave of the Fireflies.” “The sound of your chewing is driving me insane.” “You make me so anxious when you say things like that.”
On the most base level, these words are being inappropriately used in these contexts. English is a vast language, and thus we cannot blame the lack of stand-ins for these quotidian and seemingly harmless abuses of language. The Grave of the Fireflies is, indeed, a saddening movie, and the sound of another person’s mastication is indeed incensing, and hearing people say things glibly and without regard for the impact of their actions can indeed make individuals nervous, but the words used above speak to and are representative of things beyond the scope of annoyance, aggression and sadness, ordinary emotions which construct the landscape of the allegedly ‘sane’ mind. It is not so hard to use other words, to be more precise with language, even if it requires – get this – having a degree of forethought and political introspection which often seems to us, as postmodern neoliberal subjects, utterly draconian. It is easy to write off these suggestions as simple political correctness, a term which, ironically, has become almost inappropriate when it is deployed. We must be politically correct not only because of the potentiality for inflicting pain and suffering onto individuals already subject to the pain and suffering of existing with perpetual stigma (being discredited or discreditable; being other or having the potential to be exposed as other; self-outing or out-able;), but also because political correctness requests something of us whose shape and feeling we only understand because of its fundamental absence: the knowledge that we are, at our very core, bigoted and uncaring.
I have talked already about affect and ideology, and thus I won’t bore you with the details of an unfinished and underfurnished theory. In short, ideology becomes affect in order to save us the work of constantly being of-the-world and present, of thinking always about the order of things and, most meaningfully, wrestling with the web of signifiers which both deprives us of power and imbues us with it all at once. Ideology is a kind of cloud computation – we allow the cloud of ideology and social belief to act on our behalf, to compute and analyze a sequence of events and thus yield a response. Because we do cannot know the logic of the ideology, we do not question it, nor understand it as fundamentally logical. It simply is, and we act upon it without understanding, for ideology and affect function outside of the mind, are part of the material of the body.
What does this have to do with political correctness? Well, we must first break apart this phrase. Political here has a significant meaning. It is not the variation of political which is related to civic politics, that’s to say, government, elections, mayoral campaigns, etc. It does, of course, figure in these kinds of institutions as a kind of vanguard of liberalism which seeks, it seems, to divest the American people of their freedom of speech. The political in political correctness is revealed therefore in this very idea. Political correctness attempts to rectify the power relations between the stigmatized (others) and the unstigmatized. (what Erving Goffman calls “normals”). It attempts to speak to people in the language which they feel comfortable using. The political in political correctness is the interpersonal power dynamics which structure everyday life, which distinguish stigmatized from normal, which mitigate the process of discreditation, or the divestment of someone of their humanity and thus rendering them an other.
Now for the other word: correctness. The term correctness is more or less related to the idea that individuals should be allowed to come to a consensus about how they wish to be addressed as a collective “different” (read: not other) from the norm. The term “Negro” is no longer correct because it had been decided at some point in the 1960s, it seems, that the term which the Black world preferred was “black,” a term which, at least in the Anglophone world, had been just as much as an insult as “Negro” is now. Yet, the word “Negro” is not time-bound in its significance. It does not necessarily mean “A person of African descent and/or with dark skin from before the 1960s,” for the term “Black” is retroactive. Phyllis Wheatley was Black, even if she may have rejected that term during her lifetime. Negro continues to mean “Black person” or “Person of African descent” or “dark-skinned person” in ordinary parlance, but it has become obsolete and dated primarily; it has fallen out of use, and has thus become incorrect.
The term correctness is thus troubling because it does not necessarily mean what we understand correctness to mean. The issue is not between right and wrong, for the word “Negro” and slurs like “nigger” and “tar baby” and “porch monkey” all semantically and semiotically mean more or less the same thing; a black person. The connotation of these terms are, of course, different, but none of them yield a fundamentally different signified image other than the black person. Because they all arrive at the same idea, they cannot be discredited as incorrect, so much as they are obsolete. Obsolescence is therefore a better idea because what is obsolete still functions and still yields results (these words still signify) but better, more appropriate and more reliable alternatives exists and should thus be used in its stead.
Let’s look elsewhere. The word “cripple” was once used as a term to denote individuals with impaired mobility. Folks who use canes or walkers, received mobility assistance from wheelchairs, or even people temporarily on crutches were called “cripples” in a language which was, in the early 20th century, not expressly derogatory. The word “handicap” did exist, but it was not necessarily a word which you were likely to hear in ordinary conversation; the word “cripple” was. The term is still used, although it has since become obsolete. Disability advocates shun the word primarily because it represents a time when individuals with impaired mobility were look upon with pity and fear. The dispossession of the self as an otherwise creditable person through the noun “cripple” divested individuals of their humanity, and thus its replacement sought to do away with the nominalization of identity markers all together. The same cannot be said of Black people, who are still often referred to as “Blacks” or as “the Blacks,” Asian people as “Asians,” although white people rarely figure as “Whites.”
Consequentially, gay men are rarely called “gays,” but the term “lesbian” is rarely attached to “women” as an adjective; lesbian is a fundamental ontological category. Gay men are, still, men, it seems. But to “refuse to yield” to the desire of men divests a woman of her essential “womanliness,” making her into a lesbian, a non-woman.
The advent of “queer” has helped to assuage this issue of language and sexual identity, although, like all new terms, it creates new spaces for ambiguity. Queer as a term is perhaps too broad, for it figures in that ever-expanding acronym as itself a separate category, despite it at least in theory attempting to encompass all non-standard, discreditable sexual identities. The very idea of queerness was reappropriated from the slur which the word queer was in the early 20th century, used primarily to label sexually aberrant men. The term meant “weird, bizarre, strange” but also physically/mentally unwell and these definitions ultimately coalesced into the pathology of homosexual behaviors as mental illnesses in clinical psychological discourse. Yet, the idea of unwellness was brought back and détourned in order to give rise to a new way of looking at these very kinds of ‘sick’ sexual practices. Yet, an interesting question in LGBTQIA discourse is the positionality of trans and intersex folks within the umbrella of queerness. Sexuality and gender identity are not the same, and some would argue that they are perhaps even unrelated. The term “queer” therefore represents an attempt to repurpose othering language while also in the process othering individuals whom its proponents and revitalizers have brought under their guise. It succeeds in weirdly counterintuitive ways at othering the very people it tries to save from othering. At the same time, the afterlife of the idea of sickness lives on in the word “queer,” primarily in the pathologizing behaviors to which we subject queered individuals, and the feeling of pity and disdain to which we subject them.
What do we do with the ghosts of words which refuse to fade, with these signifiers whose usage has been mostly banished to history-bound books we praise as classics of a national tradition, but which are nevertheless imbued with words and phrases which have not yet lost their significance, which are not lost to us, and whose cutting edge has not, it seems, dulled at all? Of course we cannot burn every book which ever contained the word “Negro,” nor can we avoid referring to others in identifying language. The omission of otherness, the refusal to acknowledge one’s own xenophobia, as we see in the case of metropolitan France, is itself odious, for it attempts to protect the seemingly just self from the revelation of our inherent and perhaps natural-feeling bigotry. To become suddenly aware of one’s powerfulness in a world which seems to prescribe you an unavoidable powerlessness is to be disenchanted, to lose sight of what it was that fueled your ambitions; the want of what you have been denied, at the expense of those you now deny. Yet, language changes, and so do human sentiments and social ideologies. Some words will be lost to us with time, and there may be a day when the noun “lesbian” does not yield any significant meaning to a reader or speaker. Yet, because it does now, we must strive to not only understand these words, but to interrogate the reasons why they are the causes of contemporary disdain. Political correctness is not about hurt feelings, which can easily be dismissed as the thin-skinnedness of millennials, but fundamentally attempts to democratize and destabilize power dynamics which everyday deprive the discredited of a power they were, unfortunately, never meant to have.
The title of this post is a translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of semiology as a science that studies “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale.” The phrase itself is not very clear in the native French, let alone translated and disfigured into English; how do signs have life (vie) and why must we study them through the logical systems which found scientific study? How can we study the lives of signs within (au sein de) social life (vie sociale) and why must, according to Saussure, we study them this way? Does signs have meaning beyond the social realms/lives which they inhabit?
Language is ubiquitous. It is the metaphorical glue which bonds us to one another, the ability to send thoughts and ideas across spaces. Through language we are able to have civilization, for it is through the production, proliferation and interpretation of information that we are able to learn from one another.
When I was younger, I used to wish I could speak a different language. For years I tried to teach myself various tongues, all of which were chosen relatively arbitrarily, without realizing that I existed within a language reality that I was trained to never acknowledge.
A year ago I was fortunate enough to take a class called “Language and Identity in the African Diaspora.” The class was the first linguistics class that I’ve taken at Swarthmore. The course discussed the ways that language acquisition and socialization affect the performance and interpretation of the Black identity in Africa and the Americas. Interestingly enough, as I was taking “Language and Identity,” I was also taking a History class on the Gullah/Geechee communities of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. I did not expect the two courses to overlap when I originally picked them the semester before, and over the winter break I mostly forgot about the classes entirely. At the time, I was about to start my second semester of French, as well.
Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?
I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.