Bigotry and the English language, with apologies to Orwell

This post originally appeared in Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader group blog.

The defence of the indefensible. This is how George Orwell described political speech and language. But such is not the sole domain of politicians. The verbal gymnastics used to justify bigotry often reminds me that within us there exists a potential muddier of thought against whom we must guard steadfastly, lest we defend or commit the unconscionable.

Like political language, the language used to mollify bigotry avoids the imagery created by clear and descriptive words. Instead it opts for the abstract, vague and euphemistic. Homophobe, sexist and racist are too strong … and unfair, it says. Why not douche bag?

“Capetonians aren’t racist. They’re just douche bags.”

Yes. This was an actual argument put forward in defence of the many instances Cape Town’s institutions and residents have been accused of racism. Disclaimer: I have been one of the more vocal accusers — and with just cause, too.

For the uninitiated, a douche bag is the apparatus used to deliver a stream of water or other liquid into the body though a cavity — often the vagina but frequently the anus — to cleanse or to treat an infection or a blockage. Moving from this 1930s medical usage the phrase began its journey along the semantic treadmill. On American college campuses in the 1950s, douche bag became a sexist term employed by collegiate boys, who likely were no James Dean lookalikes either, to describe female peers who they deemed unattractive or undesirable. But the pejorative turned relatively quickly to become a term used exclusively to describe men who others deemed obnoxious — because, as everybody knows, the worst way to insult a man is to associate him with anything related to women. By the late 20th century, the phrase had lost much of its sting (and some of its gender specificity) and is now frequently used, even among polite (and unknowing) company.

Last week the phrase was used to defend white Capetonians, who according to the author of this ingenious defence, are generally more prone than other South Africans to make sweeping assumptions about you and treat you accordingly based on your accent, origins and social status. But instead of concluding that these prejudices make these Capetonians accentists, xenophobes and classists, the author obfuscated. Ag, no, he said, don’t mind them, they’re just douche bags.

He also came to the illogical conclusion that because such people are mere douche bags, they don’t employ race as the basis for the fact-free value judgments they use to decide on how to treat people. It’s highly plausible in South Africa that race — given how it has been used and how immediately discernible it often is — is the first basis by which these Capetonians discriminate.

But this isn’t the only recent example of using language to bury meaning. See, I suspect Brendon Henry Shields will be quite surprised to read that he is racist, which is what anybody literate read when he wrote “I am prejudiced and stuck in a comfort zone”.

From an experience Shields had as a Yeoville resident in 2003, he began to notice “differences between ‘us and them’ “. Whites like him were conscientious and cleaned the common areas while blacks dirtied up the place. This one experience marked him, he said. It made him prejudiced and opened his eyes to more “differences” between whites and black South Africans, which is why he no longer attempts to make black friends.

As it seems this needs spelling out, I shall. Racism is the prejudice by which someone, the racist, makes assumptions of and changes their behaviour toward other people based on the colour of their skin. I’m not making this up. It’s in the dictionary. Implicit in Shields’ racial assumptions, all of which are negative, is the view that black South Africans — the messy, noisy, fiscally and parentally irresponsible louts that they are — are inferior beings.

Brendon, you aren’t merely prejudiced, as apparently innocuous as that may sound. You aren’t stuck in a comfort zone either. You are racist.

I could be gentler on the guy and commend him for his “honesty”, as others have done. But that would be doing him, and us all, a disservice. The genesis of his confession was a tweetposted by Ndumiso Ngcobo that said it must take effort not to have close black friends in a country that’s over 80% black. The effort Shields has made to achieve this amazing feat has been through linguistic subterfuge. He is not racist, because that would be bad. He is merely prejudiced. This self-deceit has allowed him to stew unperturbed in his prejudice instead of challenging assumptions that he surely knows are false. His missive was honest only in so far as it was an accurate narrative of his dishonest thoughts. His not self-identifying as a racist, and thus doing little to change, is the reason he does not have black friends, not whatever past experiences he had with black folk.

And he is not alone. A golden oldie in the linguistic repertoire used to soften bigotry is “I’m not racist but … “, which betrays many of the same fallacies in Shields’ reasoning. Whatever follows that statement is guaranteed to be racist, but because the speaker has distanced himself or herself from being labelled anything as repugnant as that, they’ll likely continue to believe that they’re not racist. And they’ll do nothing about it.

Other forms of bigotry, to which none of us is immune, have equivalent examples, which is why I implore vigilance of the language we employ. To borrow from Orwell: the language used to soften bigotry — and with variations this is true of all bigotry, from ageism to xenophobia — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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3 thoughts on “Bigotry and the English language, with apologies to Orwell

  1. Damon Turner says:

    I live in Cape Town, and I’m racist. I am prejudiced against white people. Full stop. I don’t want to be, but currently I am afflicted with this racism. What white people have done, throughout the history of the world that I have been able to find out about so far, means that I cannot with good conscience think anything other than that white people are the most dangerous, least humane, and frankly, the most intellectually deficient.

    Racism is a disorder of the logical mind, and rears its disgusting and unacceptable head in numerous ways, shapes and forms; and it’s killing our people. Since you say that white Capetonians are racist, does that mean you would say that other Capetonians, and indeed, all the people in the rest of the world, are not racist? I simply wonder why you have focussed specifically on racism among white Capetonians?

    And can we also have an essay on the sexists of the world? You know, the ones who say that particular activities are specifically women’s work, or specifically men’s work… More than half the population of this planet is female, and no single ethnicity comes close to half the world’s population, so from an objective point of view, sexism is an even greater evil than racism. But in my view, by far the worst of the evils is classism. Since one percent of the world controls almost all the financial resources, and deploys those resources away from those who need it the most, towards their own one-percent club, it stands to reason that classism must be an even greater evil than racism and sexism put together.

    Of course, if we could find a way to eradicate classism, sexism, and racism, that would give us our best possible outcome. Would you kindly put your thoughts towards writing an essay on how to engender a society that has no bias towards any particular economic class, gender or ethnicity? You know, instead of telling us who you think is racist in Cape Town. Because I don’t want to be racist any more than you want white Capetonians to be racist.

    Thank you in advance.

    • T.O. Molefe says:


      It’s a fallacy in logic to say that my saying Capetonians appears to exhibit a greater extent of racial prejudice than, say, Joburg, where I used to live, is the same as my saying racism does not exist elsewhere. Unfortunately this is a very emotive topic and as with most emotive topics, layers of interpretation cake what’s actually being said. Yes, yes, writer do not blame the reader. But because this topic has been discussed at infinitude, often narrowly (and irrationally), people already have their backs up and react to the topic from their preconceived notions with little regard to the content of each new contribution to the topic.

      All I am saying is that Cape Town has a particular history and set of economic and racial demographics that has allowed white Capetonians to become insular. Garth Theunissen recognised the same, too. But whereas I experienced it on a racial basis and he experienced it on a class, accent and financial-means basis. I called it racist. He called it douchebaggery. But none of these are mutually exclusive. Saying white Capetonians are generally more racist, accentist and classist is not mutually exclusive from the claim that they are generally…uh…douchebags and snobs. It’s actually often one and the same.

      And you’ll see that my post touches on gender and sexuality, too, as these are interrelated. Read up on intersectionality, if you care to, but I wrote often on these. Resolving each is predicated on acknowledging a problem exists. Most prejudices, however, perhaps by their very nature, are denied and we are all the poorer for it.

      • Damon Turner says:

        I was once told three things that are common to all white people, which weren’t rude or derogatory, just customs and habit information. I was very interested as I listened to these things that should have described me, because one by one, they all did not. I thought that at least one would be accurate, but no, not one. It made me realise that firm held beliefs, not matter how many people have told me it’s true, no matter how much I see them manifested in society around me, are never the rule. The non-prejudiced need to actively promote non-prejudice. Otherwise, we unfortunately become part of the problem. Which makes the situation worse, obviously. Therefore anyone who says there is prejudice but doesn’t promote non-prejudice, is de facto a prejudice-collaborator. Meaning that the next time someone regales a tale of prejudicial events, we are beholden, each and every time that we can, to offer a tale that refutes the prejudice in question. I hope you will join me in this venture, since we have no need for prejudice on this great big ball of life.

        PS. Thank you for your response. I will read up on intersectionality. Garth Theunissen replied to me with an obscure Asian parable about a Buddhist monk and a student of his. I will read up on that to find out if there is a part that he left out that will explain what he’s trying to say, since the comment option on his article seems to have disappeared today.

        Have a nice Solstice 😀

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