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.