25 August 2003

Names and identities

This morning a speaker at our annual faculty retreat alerted us to one of the good contributions of political correctness, namely, to remind us to call people what they prefer to call themselves. Indeed it would seem to be simply a matter of common courtesy. For example, we nowadays refer to our northern peoples as Inuit rather than Eskimo. And our other aboriginal peoples we tend to call First Nations rather than the geographically misleading Indians.

However, what might seem a good rule of thumb is not without its difficulties.

First, it does not take into account obvious linguistic differences. Should we call the French les Français since that’s what they call themselves? Although Germans call themselves Deutschen, French, Italians and Poles each call them something that is etymologically unrelated to what Germans call themselves.

Second, and more significantly, one group’s favoured label may imply the assignment of an identity to outsiders which the latter do not accept. For example, in 17th-century Russia the Patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, pursued a series of ecclesiastical reforms that effectively alienated millions, who subsequently broke with the official church. We now know them as Old Believers. The Russian Orthodox call them Raskolniki (schismatics), while they know themselves to be simply Christians. Were we to call them Christians, what would we be implying about other Russians, and indeed about ourselves?

The other day I was asked by our registrar’s office to evaluate for transfer credit a course from another university titled Politics of the Third World. The “Third World” designation would seem not to be politically correct, as it presupposes a priority of the industrialized “First World,” and even of the now defunct communist “Second World.” “Third World” in effect means “everyone else,” or perhaps what Jews describe as the goyim, or gentiles, and ancient Greeks called barbaroi, or barbarians. More recently, people have referred to this large swath of the globe as the “Two-Thirds World,” which makes geographic sense but still manages to compress a huge amount of cultural and political diversity into a single one-size-fits-all identity.

My guess is that it really is impossible entirely to conform to the politically correct dictum mentioned above, however hard we try. This is primarily because identities are always in some fashion relational, and not merely self-chosen. We are not solely responsible for deciding who we are; others inevitably have a share in this. Only when such externally-assigned identities are demeaning or insulting do they become oppressive. Otherwise they are unavoidable.

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