Calmez-Vous, Americans: It's Quite OK To Call Us "The French"
A widely mocked tweet by the Associated Press tells its reporters to avoid dehumanizing labels such as "the poor" or "the French". But one French writer replies that the real dehumanizing threat is when open conversation becomes impossible.
PARIS — The largest U.S. news agency, the Associated Press (AP) tweeted a series of recommendations aimed at journalists: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead use, wording such as people with mental illnesses.”
The inclusion of “The French” in this list of groups likely to be offended has evoked well-deserved sarcasm. It finally gives me the opportunity to be part of a minority and to confirm at my own expense, while staying true to John Stuart Mill's conception of free speech: that offense is not a crime.
Offense should prompt quips, denial, mockery, and sometimes indifference. It engages conflict in the place where a civilized society accepts and cultivates it: in language.
So my dear American friends, don’t be shy. Say that the French are lazy, that they eat frog legs, or that they write poems while sitting at the terraces of cafés. Continue to paint us as cynical and fickle smokers, just like you do in the show Emily in Paris. We will be big enough to defend ourselves and smart enough to laugh about it.
Humor behind the apology
The funniest part is the AP’s reaction: it modified the disputed message, apologized for having caused “unintentional offense.” And yet the subject was obviously not the offense, but rather the very idea that there could even be one. It seems as though the East Coast journalists are no longer able to untangle themselves from the self-righteous spider's web of egotistical hypersensitivity, perpetual indignation, and untenable earnestness they have weaved for themselves.
The reasoning of offense has become impenetrable. Any word can be declared blasphemous by non-discrimination fanatics. Publishing houses now hire "sensitivity readers" — in other words, censors in charge of making sure that no one is offended. But this is the function of literature. The United States is entering an era of obscurantism to which progressives and conservatives alike are contributing (Republican Florida now sanctions discrimination... against anti-wokes!).
The AP’s vice-president unwillingly revealed the substance of this new inquisition by trying to justify himself: “the reference to the ‘French’ as well as the reference to ‘the college educated’ is an effort to show that labels shouldn’t be used for anyone, whether they are traditionally or stereotypical viewed as positive, negative or neutral”. Thus, the phrase "the French supported the American War of Independence" would become offensive to counter-revolutionaries who were hostile to it. Their descendants may feel hurt, despised, and trapped in a history they do not support.
Two Parisians at a café terrasse.
To speak is to generalize
What is at stake, beyond the somewhat grotesque meanderings of this case, is the very possibility of language. One does not have to know semiotics to understand that concepts proceed both from a grouping of individual occurrences and from an opposition between general ideas. By establishing distinct criteria between different categories, thoughts are discriminating by nature. To speak or to speak to ourselves is to generalize: “trains are late”, “men are sexist”…
By saying “the French”, nobody pretends to grasp 68 million individuals.
In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates explains that a philosopher must, with their words, cut up reality like a good butcher, without chopping all the body parts to pieces. Knowing where the individual muscles, bones and joints are has been the object of all our discussions and debates for 2,500 years.
By saying “the French”, nobody pretends to grasp 68 million individuals. Like the British historian Theodore Zeldin in a book appropriately entitled The French, everyone tries with more or less skill and good faith to identify common characteristics, only to be contradicted. Such is the life of ideas.
First Amendment and loud silence
On the contrary, wanting to identify a person or a thing as a pure singularity forbids talking about it. In a short story titled “Funes or the Memorious”, Borges imagines a hypermnesiac who, perceiving each situation in its smallest details, becomes incapable of general ideas: "Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many, unlike individuals of diverse size and form.”
The country of the First Amendment is thus sinking into a loud silence where any common conversation becomes impossible. That is what is dehumanizing.
We can only hope that Europe, and in particular "The French", will manage to escape from it.
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