Why do so many questions mention racism

Discrimination in language
"Language is just one of many construction sites"

The linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch researches politically correct language and defends it vehemently. Why? And how can you linguistically prevent racism?

A question of morality is the name of a narrow volume that the linguist Anatol Stefanowitsch published in Dudenverlag. In it he explains why a change of perspective can help to understand linguistic discrimination.

Mr. Stefanowitsch, would I be a racist if I ordered a gypsy schnitzel?

That depends on what you mean by "racist". When someone is referred to as a racist in political contexts, it is often said that what was said was "not meant that way". But when I say “Zigeunerschnitzel” I am acting racist at least on the linguistic level.


Because the other person cannot read my mind, but only hears what I say. Racism is here in the meaning of the word, not in the intention of the speaker.

In your book you talk about the Z-Schnitzel and the N-word instead.

Especially when it comes to the N word, black people have long organized themselves and drawn attention to its brutality. They also find it aggressive in quotations or mentions. That's why I'm not writing it out. “Gypsy”, on the other hand, is a highly discriminatory word, but it is viewed in a more nuanced way. Sinti and Roma have made it clear that they do not want to be called that. However, they do not find this term so offensive that it should not be mentioned again. A few use this word as a self-term.

If those affected use discriminatory words themselves, opponents of politically correct language argue, it is unproblematic. How do you see it

These individual voices are used to relieve discriminatory everyday language use. For many, a single black German is apparently enough to say that the N-word does not match him in order to be able to ignore many other prominent voices and the statements of the associations. Why aren't these voices heard?

What do you mean?

We like to listen to those who tell us what we already believe. As members of a majority, we ignore the unpleasant statements made by members of discriminated minorities, as long as we can find a single person who is not bothered by our behavior. Even in this situation we would do justice to everyone by simply dispensing with the discriminatory use of language.

Another argument from opponents of politically correct language: One should first take care of more important things, for example legal equality, before adopting politically correct language.

Funnily enough, the people who made this argument never concern themselves with actually changing anything beyond language. For activists, on the other hand, it is clear that language is just one of many construction sites for equality. In addition, not all those affected by racist language complain. There are definitely more important matters for them to put their energy into. If you are racially addressed several times a day, you cannot get upset about it every time. A feeling of fatigue sets in, a habituation effect. This also applies to women, who certainly have to fight other battles before they can get upset about the generic masculine on savings bank forms. Which does not mean that they are not right to be angry about it.

In your book you formulated a golden rule to prevent linguistic discrimination.

The Golden Rule is about changing your perspective: Would I be treated like this in a specific situation? It is not enough for a white man to just imagine what it would be like to be black or a woman. Instead, I should remember a situation in which - as someone who was actually privileged - I wasn't that privileged.

What would such a situation be?

On a podium I recently met a discussant who spoke out vehemently against political correctness and non-discriminatory language. What is really bad is neoliberalism and the fact that people are referred to as "human material". It was someone who belonged to the often-quoted group of white men. Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of those who have been discriminated against, members of this group - and others too - might think of their feelings when using words such as “human material”. The mechanism is the same: you no longer feel viewed as an individual, but instead referred to as a brutal term. I should keep this feeling as a privileged person. You can expect that from everyone.

But it's never just about linguistic brutality, but also and above all about the social exclusion that is behind it.

That is the problem with any thought experiment: I can put myself into the role of a woman by listening to the women in my life or reading texts by women authors. Unlike her, I can end the thought experiment at any time. So you can never empathize with discriminatory experiences. But you can listen to them.

"The progress made so far could be quickly forgotten"

The discourse about politically correct language has existed for a long time. Why did you write a book about it just now?

On the one hand, a brutalization can currently be observed in the public discourse. The history of public debate is unfortunately not a history of constant progress, but rather it takes place in waves. The last wave began with Pegida and the AfD, but it has now also encompassed the CSU and other parties. You couldn't have imagined that ten years ago, and it happened at a time when the understanding that non-discriminatory language is important has not yet fully established itself. A dangerous situation in which the progress made so far could quickly be forgotten.

On the other hand, progress made so far has shown that you can nonetheless reach large parts of the population with the matter if you explain very fundamentally why someone can feel discriminated against by language in the first place. And makes it clear: It's not about some over-the-top activists wanting to forbid you to speak.

Exactly this accusation is heard again and again. How did this misunderstanding come about?

The misunderstanding is due to the fact that we normally do not differentiate between linguistic content and linguistic form. These are purely analytical categories, and you first have to understand that you can express the same content differently.

So a discriminatory content without discriminatory language?

Yes. For example, someone who thinks women are worth less should definitely be able to express that opinion. But then he should please explicitly state what he thinks and take responsibility for it, instead of allowing the position to flow in by the way, by using established discriminatory terms or simply linguistically ignoring women. However, it is illusory to think that the discussion of form can be conducted in isolation from meaning. And regardless of the politically correct language, there is currently a debate about which opinions one can express. People sometimes feel badly hit when their opinion is contradicted. The case of Uwe Tellkamp, ​​who received a lot of criticism for his statements about refugees and then accused the media of being put in the right corner, is a more recent example of this.

Criticism of politically correct language does not only come from the right. Leftists also believe that identity politics stand in the way of a fight against exploitation. The philosopher Robert Pfaller, for example, speaks in his essay “Adult Language” of a “culture of repressive tender speaking”. Everyone only cared about their own sensitivities, which resulted in depoliticization and de-solidarization.

I have seldom read a more absurd argument. Robert Pfaller claims that politically correct language is a strategy of neoliberal forces to divert attention from the economic brutality that these forces wield and to divide the groups affected by this brutality. This thesis is so poor that it would have to be underpinned. Robert Pfaller doesn't do that. At no point does it provide an example that the actors of neoliberalism are the same as those of politically correct language. At best, one could draw the argument from this thesis that instead of the fight for non-discriminatory language there are even more important fights. But Robert Pfaller, as someone who, as far as I know, is not affected on any axis of discrimination, cannot decide that.

What do you mean by the axis of discrimination?

Each and every one of us can be discriminated on one or more different axes such as “man / woman”, “black / white”, “handicapped / not handicapped” - or not. Even those who are discriminated on a certain axis can discriminate against others where they are not. For example, a white woman can also be a racist or a black man a sexist. But at least he or she can understand what it means to be discriminated against. Those who are not discriminated against on any axis cannot.

Pfaller also claims that political correctness is an "elite problem".

That's partly true. Most socio-political discourses are initiated in the scientific environment. That has always been the case and it is a good thing: Knowledge is not a bad thing. Here in Germany a lot has been done in recent years to ensure that universities are more open than ever before. We can certainly do even more to ensure that people with more diverse backgrounds get access to universities. But I have the impression that within activist circles, be it feminist, anti-racist or otherwise, there is a good continuum between academics and people reporting from everyday experience. The accusation that the discourse is solely an academic one seems to me to be populist. It only comes from people who have an academic background themselves.

You write in your book that there is an unequal distribution of the possibility of discriminating against others in the German language: while there are a multitude of derogatory expressions for women, Muslims, migrants and people of color, for example, white people are in a bad position Want to offend middle-class man with a single term. Do we need more derogatory terms for the majority population so that they can empathize with discrimination?

Such terms cannot be invented because they develop in discriminatory structures. There are opposing terms used by groups that are linguistically and structurally suppressed: “Potato”, “Alman” or “Bio-German”. Many get upset about this, but the discriminatory effect does not materialize. When "potato" is the worst thing I have to listen to, it is only when I realize how privileged I am.


Ann-Kristin Tlusty

Copyright: Ann-Kristin Tlusty for ZEIT ONLINE (www.zeit.de) from: 16.06.2018 "Language is just one of many construction sites"
June 2018

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