COLUMN

The folly of policing language

Barbara Amiel November 26 1984
COLUMN

The folly of policing language

Barbara Amiel November 26 1984

The folly of policing language

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

In the late 1960s the black American comedian Bill Cosby had a routine in which he illustrated, with an amusing selection of “black words,” how racial prejudice was so deeply ingrained in society that our very language reflected bigotry. Cosby would roll his eyes and, with a delivery that was close to brilliant, would reveal the racial perfidy of English by such phrases as “the dark side of things.”

His routine sounded very convincing to English-speaking audiences unacquainted with other languages. But those familiar with languages from countries where no encounter with dark-skinned people ever took place—or where everyone was of dusky huepointed out that the derogatory connotations given to the word “black” were simply based on a value judgment about night and day.

Currently, similar confusions exist about so-called sexist language in which words are held accountable for attitudes toward women—for instance, the war on the usage of such words as “mankind” or on phrases such as “old wives’ tales.” Anyone with the most basic knowledge of comparative languages or anthropology knows that in some of the most patriarchal societies, such as Turkey and Hungary, the language happens to be gender-free, devoid even of such third-person pronouns as “he” or “she.” Only people whose ignorance of human psychology includes their total ignorance of history and languages can think that there is a direct connection between the words, grammatical forms and common expressions of a language and the value systems of the society in which it is used.

But the language cops—the loose coalition of feminists, left-wingers and human rights groupies that is the newest branch of our thought police —are now gathering steam in Canada. Those people have discovered all sorts of nonexistent connections between language and value systems, which seems to reflect more their own pathological sensitivity than any expressed or implied prejudice. It is not sexist to talk of old wives’ tales nearly as much as it is paranoid to believe that it is. It is not racist to use the word “blackmail” nearly as much as it is hypersensitive to believe doing so is racist.

At one time those sorts of ideas could be comfortably dismissed as the ravings of the lunatic fringe of society. But the

language cops have moved with extraordinary speed. Boards of education and government ministries now have all sorts of style manuals that give employees lists of gender-free and racially inoffensive concepts to substitute for their supposedly racist and sexist language. In his throne speech on Nov. 5, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tipped his hat to the language cops and promised legislation to control sexually abusive programming. Since there is not, nor has there been, any sexually abusive programming on our airwaves, that could only mean that the ideas of the militant language cops were being given official recognition and, indeed, three days later the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission passed new regulations prohibiting discriminatory and “abusive” programming.

A few weeks ago Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry issued his government’s style manual for use by any-

The image cops have engaged in ‘a blatant attempt to enforce the twisted values of their zealotry on our society9

one wanting to do advertising for the Ontario government. That same week, a reader sent me (in a plain brown envelope) a copy of the style manual of the Board of Education of the City of North York in Metropolitan Toronto. The manuals are representative of the dozens of rules the language cops have pressured boards of education and government ministries to issue.

The North York style book wants employees to avoid ever indicating marital status or gender in communications. Thus, Mr., Mrs. and Miss are out. Nor should invitations be sent to Jane Smith and spouse. They should be sent to Jane Smith and guest. Phrases such as Man and His World or mankind long ago got the boot. Some substitutions indicate a degree of illiteracy. “Man-made” is not accurately replaced by “synthetic” or “artificial.” Personal pronouns send the North York board into a tizzy. Teachers are to avoid using expressions such as “Give each student his paper as soon as he is finished.”

Over at the Ontario government, making TV commercials would be a nightmare if their guidelines on racially

inoffensive programming were to be followed. Guideline Seven: “Use different racial accents from time to time in audio communications.” Never mind that if you use the wrong sort of accent, the human rights commissions will get you for racism—as they did with the Wintario lottery’s Charlie Chan commercials. I want to see a commercial with the marvellous Jamaican lilt saying, “Waha’ appen jah” and subtitles to explain that it means “Hi. What’s happening now?”

Guideline Six tells advertisers to “Show a multiracial group working or playing together in activities in which they can be shown consulting each other and respecting each other’s abilities.” One can imagine a commercial in which a Pakistani cashier totals a grocery bill and an Anglo-Canadian customer thanks the cashier and murmurs, “I respect your ability to do that,” or, more subtly, just clucks an appreciative tongue.

Guideline Eight wants advertisers to avoid “juxtaposing a shot of Inuit skinning a seal with a shot of whites working in a high-tech laboratory—it might be taken to imply the Inuit were primitive people.” It might, I suppose. But would it be realistic to have a show of whites trying to skin a seal and a group of Inuit in a high-tech factory? I can hear the race relations person from the Ontario government viewing the footage: “Comrade Director, the white people don’t seem to know how to skin the seal and the Inuit are not working effectively in the hightech lab.”

It is all madness. The language and image cops are using the pretence of reforming our sexist and racist language as a blatant attempt to enforce the twisted values of their extreme zealotry on the living body of our society. Hopefully, we will all come to regard those people with the same scorn their Jacobin predecessors got when they took the ideals of the French Revolution and pursued such idiotic goals as the “rational 10-day week” in the name of reason and egalitarianism. Meanwhile, though we have no guillotine, the person who sent me the North York manual did it anonymously, fearful for his career advancement.

Once we were a proud and free people. Now we use the word “Miss” under pain of loss of job. Have we learned nothing from history? Perhaps Brian Mulroney, having given us the abusive programming legislation, will now give us the decimal week.