How insensitive is the term Nazi grammar

About language and racism

22.02.2016

“One can still say that” - racism in our language is a regular issue. The fronts seem hardened, but dealing with language critical of racism is still worthwhile.

From: Alice Lanzke

"Follow the call of exotic women, racy gypsies and brave bullfighting heroes to Spain, the land of sun and castanets": What reads like an exaggerated list of racist stereotypes actually comes from the invitation to the "Opera & Operetta Festival" Magdeburg 2005. A good ten years later, some things have improved, but not much has changed. Be it well-intentioned cultural events or media reports, school books or our everyday use of language - in many areas there are racist terms and idioms that are used, sometimes without the speaker being aware of the problem.

This becomes clear, for example, if you google the term “Africa Festival”: The hit list contains a wide variety of cultural events, at which one racist prejudice is ranked after another with the best of intentions. There is talk of “rhythmic drums” and “exotic pleasures”, while the event posters feature elephants, half-clad black people and savannah landscapes - a few words and pictures are enough to reduce an entire continent to common clichés. At Brazilian dance shows, on the other hand, people often rave about the “racy dancers”, while when reporting on a Chinese art exhibition, the “almond eyes” of the introductory speaker should not go unmentioned - linguistic labels that reduce phrases and serve prejudices.

These labels are the result of a careless, in the worst case ignorant use of language that discriminates against people. What effects such names can have was shown, for example, in the so-called children's book debate in December 2012: At that time there was disputes across the feature pages and in the general public about racist language in children's books, triggered by the letter to the editor from little Ishema Kane to "Die Zeit" . The weekly newspaper had previously reported critically that the N-word was being deleted from children's books - a position that offended the nine-year-old, as she wrote.

When it comes to racism in our language, the reactions are still strong today. This can not only be observed in cases that made headlines like the children's book debate. In everyday life, you repeatedly come across people who defend the word “asylum seeker” and do not want to see that this term has meanwhile had strong negative connotations due to its massive use in the right-wing extremist scene. Others speak - and not just since Thilo Sarrazin - of "headscarf girls" and thus reduce linguistic to an external, generalizing feature that says little about the individual. Still others find it apt to rave about "classy dancers" and "exotic drum sounds": adjectives that were shaped by racial theory and the colonial era and are therefore problematic not only because of their generalized character.

And even terms like “Mohrenkopf” or “Zigeunerschnitzel” prove to be stubborn, linguistic revenants. Although these terms come from very different contexts, they have one thing in common: They make it clear how firmly anchored racism is in our everyday language; Efforts to give them up cause debates in the media and social networks, in school and extracurricular education, in politics or the cultural sector - everywhere there is a discussion about how we talk to each other, who is talking about whom and what terminology we use. The arguments of those who oppose discrimination-sensitive language also remain the same. The word "language police" is quickly mentioned, excessive sensitivity is diagnosed or an alleged "language dictatorship" is denounced.

"Come on..."

The New German Media Makers (NdM), for example, found out when they presented their glossary in 2014 with “Formulation aids for reporting in the country of immigration”. The NdM are a nationwide association of media professionals with different cultural backgrounds who, as a non-profit association, have been campaigning for more diversity in the media, migrant perspectives in reporting and a non-discriminatory public discourse since 2008. It is precisely this discourse that is to be promoted by the glossary by introducing problematic terms from the subject areas of “flight and asylum”, “migration” or “Islam”, explaining what the problem is and showing alternative naming options.

It is not uncommon for words such as “immigrant”, “immigrant” and “migrant” to be used side by side in the same text in the erroneous assumption that they all mean the same thing. But especially in the emotionally troubled and sensitive discussion about migration and minorities, designations - if they are necessary - should be as precise and value-free as possible. Expressly introduced as a "contribution to the debate" and "assistance" for daily editorial work, there were nevertheless some critics who accused the publication as a whole of propagating excessive political correctness, wanting to bring the language into line or promoting excessive “do-gooders”. Reactions that almost all actors who advocate non-discriminatory language should be familiar with.

Another frequent accusation: You shouldn't "queue" like that, after all, it's all about words. This attitude fails to recognize the meaning and effect of language. Language influences our perception and thus also our social reality. It does not take place in a vacuum, but is always an expression of (power) relationships. And: language is never neutral. For example, the supposedly objective word of the “discovery of America” disguises the fact that a brutal colonization that cost countless human lives took place. The problem becomes even clearer with the term "Reichskristallnacht": Although widespread, it is the euphemistic term for the Reichspogromnacht, which marked the beginning of the systematic extermination of the Jews.

Current discussions in particular always follow the same pattern: someone expresses criticism of the discriminatory use of language, a heated discussion ensues (especially in social networks), the criticism is defamed as exaggerated and the debate falls asleep again. Often enough, the dispute is fought out on a level that sees language as a mere tool - as an instrument whose rules are exhausted in the correct use of "duding" and the mastery of grammar and punctuation, as a value-free means of conveying information. But language is much more than that: it is a basis of our human interaction, its conscious use a sign of mutual respect. That respect includes granting everyone that he or she determines when a designation is experienced as discriminatory.

So if black people, for example, perceive the N-word as racist, then that has nothing to do with censorship, oversensitivity or thought regulations, but is simply the legitimate demand for respect and the expression of a matter of course in our pluralistic society today. But why is the resistance against such obvious things so violently? Criticism of discrimination-sensitive language use often joins a whole list of anti-modernist tendencies, which not infrequently also include anti-feminism, right-wing populism or homophobia. What they have in common is the rejection of openness to the world, diversity and tolerance - characteristics that are described by those who share the same opinion as exhausting, unworldly and superfluous.

In most cases, the common mantra can be broken down to “Everything was better in the past”. In fact, the past seems to have been simpler, especially when it comes to the subject of “racism and language”: Critical language use was once an almost exclusively academic discussion. But in this case, simpler does not mean better. It may be that the language used to offer fewer pitfalls, but many more people have been hurt by careless use of the language. The difference: Today these people raise their voices and clearly use our language to name racist attributions and descriptions.

That we are now arguing publicly about whether there is a difference between “migrants”, “immigrants” and “immigrants”, whether it should be called “refugee” or “refugee” and when a “concerned citizen” is simply a “Nazi” “Is, in this respect, can almost be described as progress. Because little by little it is becoming more and more popular that language has different, complex dimensions. Accordingly, it is not always a question of what is being said, but also of “how?” And the question of who is talking to whom about whom. Against this background, language becomes a daily opportunity to influence our society and its values.

To the extent that language forms reality, it ultimately also offers the opportunity to participate in this formation - for better or for worse. Even the Jewish Romanist and politician Victor Klemperer, who was persecuted by the Nazis and who published his treatise “Language of the Third Reich” (“Lingua tertii imperii”) after the Second World War, noticed that words can look like tiny arsenic cans: “They go unnoticed swallowed, they seem to have no effect, and after a while the poisonous effect is there. "

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