Language and Racism.
Why precision is a vital weapon in the fight against racism.
A peculiar feature of the truth is that it’s funny. Actually, wait. The truth is clearly not always funny. What I mean is that there’s a certain joy that reliably accompanies the truth. And that this joy will, under the right circumstances, make people laugh. Great comedians all understand this. The Richard Pryors, the George Carlins, the Dave Chappelles. All of them are (or were) masters of utilising this hidden feature of the truth.
It’s why Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special 8:46 was so powerful. It’s why Richard Pryor was (and still is) so revered for standing on stage and telling us, often with excruciating honesty, how imperfect he was. It’s why George Carlin’s commentary on language and politics is still as valuable and relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Take this clip from his 1990 special “Doin’ It Again” for example:
I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language, and American English is loaded with euphemisms. ’Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth. So they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation…I’ll give you an example of that.
There’s a condition in combat, most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum, can’t take any more input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap. In the First World War, that condition was called “shell shock”. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables; shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was 70 years ago.
Then a whole generation went by, and the Second World War came along. And the very same combat condition was called “battle fatigue”. Four syllables now, takes a little longer to say, doesn’t seem to hurt as much. “Fatigue” is a nicer word than “shock”. Shell shock. Battle fatigue.
Then we had the war in Korea in 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time. And the very same combat condition was called “operational exhaustion”. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity’s been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.
Then of course came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about 16 or 17 years. And thanks to the lies and deceit surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon.
If you look carefully, you’ll notice there aren’t any jokes here. There are no clever turns of phrase or skilful subversions of our expectations. All Carlin does is draw our attention to the imprecision with which we use language. He doesn’t even need to explain the point he’s making because we already know. He holds up a mirror, and we laugh.
Anyway, I was reminded of this phenomenon this morning, when I read a quote from, of all people, Ben Shapiro. I tend to disagree with at least 80% of the things that Ben Shapiro says, so imagine my surprise to find my self nodding along in agreement at this quote:
If you cannot define a problem clearly, you cannot propose a solution. ’Systemic racism’ or ‘institutional racism’ or ‘implicit racism’ is a miasmatic, deliberately vague charge. Name the racist policy, name the racist person. So we can all fight the racism together.
In the interests of maintaining my track record of disagreeing with Ben Shapiro, I don’t buy his assertion that the charges he refers to are deliberately vague. I don’t believe that people use terms like “institutional racism” in an attempt to obscure the truth, just as I don’t believe that people use terms like “post-traumatic stress disorder” to obscure the suffering people are enduring.
But this imprecision still leads to the same problem that Carlin pointed to 30 years ago. The vaguer our language becomes, the harder it becomes to understand exactly what we’re talking about. When we chant “no justice, no peace” for example, what exactly do we mean by justice? Is it just for George Floyd? Is it for the next innocent civilian killed by the police? Will we riot for as long as our justice systems are imperfect? Aren’t practical steps to reform better than the threat of violence?
Racism isn’t being offended while black, it’s being offended because you’re black or white, or any other colour. Racism isn’t having something bad happen to you whilst black, it’s having something bad happen to you because you’re black or white, or any other colour. Racism isn’t an innocent mistake or even a moment of ignorance, it’s a state of mind made possible by the bafflingly misguided belief that people who don’t look like you are the enemy.
Racism is, first and foremost, idiotic. We should lean into this fact, not hide it behind complex social theory or even the atrocities which it has enabled. Racism is a symptom of the stupidity that lives in us all. Yes, it’s present in our systems and our institutions as well. Of course it is, we built them! But the solution doesn’t lie simply in dismantling them, it lies in ensuring that whatever we build to replace them isn’t simply stupid in a new way. The solution isn’t in pointing out enemies, but in turning them into allies. The solution isn’t in fighting, but in being as precise as possible in recognising what we need to fight. Otherwise the pain just gets buried under jargon.