Race and Language
(Česká verze tohoto článku je výše v těchto Britských listech, viz Obsah.)
I received a lovely Christmas gift this year: a book of collected works of various newspaper columnists over the past 150 or so years. It contains about 200 different writers with a short bibliography and a few selections of writing from each author, all arranged chronologically. Reading through the book, one is acutely aware of how language - always a reflection of society - has changed over the years, and perhaps, one can even see something instructive for the Czech Republic in this change.
A columnist writes a regular column for a newspaper or a syndicate. Some of these regular contributors to daily newspapers were extremely prolific; indeed, many of them were writing over 1000 words a day, every day, for two or three decades.
With so many articles behind them, obviously, each had his or her good days and bad days, and not everything they wrote was a pure gem. As one columnist from Australia once said: a columnist writes for a deadline and an audience, not eternity.
Because the book contains many interesting texts from the past century and a half, the reader can follow not only the changes in this journalistic form over the years but also changes in the use of the English language in pubic debate. The language surrounding the question of race has changed greatly indeed.
Writing in the San Francisco Examiner exactly 100 years ago, the columnist Ambrose Bierce uses language that would be completely in place in the Czech national press today:
"If here in our own country we can get on with the Negroes only by killing them, how will it be with the Negroes and Negroids of Cuba and Porto Rico?" (sic)
In his words, referring to the results of the Spanish American War, Bierce uses the term "we" to denote the white majority population. It doesn't occur to him that a non-white would be reading a copy of that day's San Francisco Examiner. "We" is the white population. Certainly in today's America, no columnist would ever address his readers with "we" and have only the white population in mind. The reason is not that such language would be censored or cut due to some "political correctness" (the strength of which has always been exaggerated). It's just that an American columnist of today would not find it at all appropriate to address only part of his or her audience split along race lines. In the US, it is now a deeply ingrained part of the public debate that "we" means everyone in society, regardless of colour.
Of course, standards of public debate are set by such elites, and those elites are often slightly "ahead" of the general population. Thus, the written language does not necessarily represent the feelings of the wider society, and the disappearance of this language in American newspapers does not mean the disappearance of racism in American society.
Still, the style of public debate and the persistent use of the racial "we" in the Czech Republic, by contrast, is notable: it does say something about the state of race relations in the Czech Republic today. Unfortunately, ranks-closing, race-oriented "we" speech is common in opinion and commentary writing in the Czech media (see, for example, http://www.britskelisty.cz/9803/19980320f.html)). Prague's opinion makers and media commentators use such language with a regularity that suggests they do not even realise how the language itself relates to the race issue.
Once Czech public debate stops using "we" to mean "we Czechs who have a problem with them, the outsiders, the Roma" and instead starts using "we" to mean "we citizens of this Republic," then everyone will be able to see clear progress in the race issue in the Czech Republic. Let us - all of us - hope that it doesn't take 100 years.