Friday, October 19, 2007

Politically Correct

Political correctness an odd phenomenon that hasn't really gone beyond the borders of the West. The feelings behind it are starting to, maybe, for some things at least. Educated Turks try to swallow their racial bigotry in conversation (though they might still stare at foreigners of any race and find them delightful), but they're still disgusted by homosexuality. Brokeback Mountain was released in Turkey as İbne Kovboylar (Faggot Cowboys). Under-educated Turks are unabashed about their prejudices. A dear friend and his partner came to visit Istanbul, my friend anxious to show off the place he'd left after living here for seven years. His partner,S, is Black, and we were followed by open-mouthed stares and barely concealed whispers and giggles everywhere we went. Passing some crowds on a narrow stairway, a few girls squealed and jumped away from S, and a few steps down we had to slap away some villagers who were trying to touch his hair. S is a really striking guy, and well-built, and because he was wearing a soccer jersey we tried to convince ourselves everyone just thought he was a famous footballer. But really, my friend and I were ashamed, both at the behavior of people in our adopted city, and at ourselves for recognizing that doing or saying anything would have been futile and so doing or saying nothing. Mostly. We told off a few people and were laughed at for our Turkish.

Political correctness is a linguistic quagmire. As an American, all the correct words have been pounded or shamed into me. When I was a kid, 'Negro' was as acceptable as 'Black', even polite, given the other choices, but at some point I learned to catch myself and say 'African American.' 'Handicapped' took the place of 'crippled,' then even 'handicapped' went away in favor of 'disabled,' though I really did have to draw the line at 'differently abled,' because not only is it confusing (isn't everybody differently abled from everybody else?), it seems somehow patronizing, like calling mentally retarded people 'special.' I'm sure 'retarded' is a word I'm not supposed to use either, but 'mentally disabled' is just too vague. 'Latino' became a convenient way to avoid lumping everyone south of the border into the same label of 'Mexican,' and also to avoid the taint of slur the word 'Mexican' had acquired in Southern California where I lived for awhile, the way 'Jew' is a slur in some contexts but not in others.

But since I've been in Turkey almost six years, a lot of this linguistic self-training has gone out the window. Euphemism and avoidance doesn't work for non-native speakers. It's a huge trap for teaching English, and will be met with blank stares in everyday conversation. My students usually picked up and used the word 'nigger,' probably from American films and TV, and really never could quite get why they shouldn't use it. I don't know any bad words for Black people in Turkish. The word I know, 'zenci' seems to be as bad or neutral as the speaker wants it to be, depending on the accompanying intonation and facial expression. 'Crippled' is another word learners often come up with. Colloquial Turkish uses 'sakat,' so 'crippled' is the word their dictionaries tell them. Same for 'backward' to mean retarded, as they usually hunt for 'geri' to describe retarded people. I have to use 'geri' in Turkish to describe my uncle with Down's Syndrome because I don't know another word, but 'geri' seems unnecessarily cruel. Turkish does have 'engelli' for disabled or handicapped, but it's very general. It's mostly used in official contexts (like on the rare handicapped toilet) and has a sound of official euphemism to it, and so isn't used very often in everyday speaking.

The lexicon of political correctness represents a type of avoidance, but what to avoid and why to avoid it is very much culturally bound. It's partly an issue of politeness, but it also is tied to how we label each other, and our feelings about how we want others to see us based on the labels we use. The first time I heard a student say 'nigger,' I really jumped. She was an intelligent, genteel, and well-educated young woman, and I had to remind myself that she wasn't aware of the cultural baggage of that word. 'It's a rude word,' I explained. 'It's argo.' Argo, I should note, is used in Turkish as a general word for slang, but slang carries a different weight here, in that it's bad or low language, used often by men and rarely by women, and rarely by men in front of women. So this explanation was enough to keep this young woman from saying 'nigger' again, but what about the men in the class? Calling it argo is hardly a way of discouraging them from using it, especially given the context they learned it in, which was likely a slick American film with cool Black guys calling each other 'nigger'. Not only does it look to them like a cool bit of American slang, it looks like the proper thing to call Black people, since that's what Black people appear to call each other. To Turks, it doesn't make a bit of sense that Black people can use a word with each other freely, but White people are forbidden from speaking it, and everyone gets really shocked and offended to hear anyone but a Black person say it.

To say that 'nigger' is rude hardly covers the problem with the word, but explaining the history and cultural context of it is just something you can't really do well with a lower-level English class in a 50-minute lesson. You're just asking to place yourself in a minefield you can't explain yourself out of. Once I told a class that it was a word only stupid people use, like George W. Bush, which earned me a laugh, but still didn't explain why only White people can't say it. A more authoritarian approach, like "It's a very, very bad word and you should never, ever use it no matter what," might work for some students, but one or two are always bound to ask "Why?" It's a good question. 'Nigger' is bad, but it's not a swear word. And as they've picked up from Hollywood, it's only bad for some people.

Then, of course, there's the inevitable follow-up question of how to refer to Black people. As I mentioned before, at some point in my life, probably around high school, I learned to say 'African American' instead of 'Black,' because 'Black' can be seen as a slur in certain contexts, and it's not always clear what those contexts are. However, outside of America, this fails. 'African American,' to me, refers to a very specific group of people, that is, Americans descended from Africans who were brought over as slaves 200 years ago. It can be extended to refer to more recent (Black) African and Caribbean immigrants to America. It refers to a very specific genre of literature, art, and film. Outside of America, though, it's very confusing. Obviously, you can't refer to Nigerian immigrants in Turkey as 'African Americans.' Nor is it appropriate for Black British people, or Black Turkish people descended from Africans who've been here since Ottoman times. And since 'African American' is a way of avoiding saying 'Black', it can't be used in America to refer to White immigrants from Africa, or even North Africans.

In an ESL classroom in America, students would probably be taught to use 'African American,' and that's fine. Inside of America, teachers would probably be discouraged from telling students to say 'Black,' because it's too slippery to know in which contexts it's okay. But here, I do teach them to say 'Black' and I do my best to make them understand why they shouldn't say 'nigger.' In the end, there's a very Western notion of political correctness, and the complicated processes we have of labelling ourselves and other people in order to avoid using labels, or in order to avoid using labels that can be thought of as rude or offensive even when the people who might be offended aren't around to have their feelings hurt. To a Turk, though, this process of avoidance labelling doesn't make any sense at all, and I have to admit it's starting to make less and less sense to me the longer I'm outside of America. Obviously, I know what's a slur and what isn't, and I know I'm not a bigot, but when talking to non-native speakers and wanting to be understood, being too delicate, or using culturally-bound linguistic delicacies undermines what you're trying to say, causes confusion, and in the end, is best abandoned.


Kataroma said...

Here in Italy (or at least in Rome) the media plays lip service to PC-ness but the Italians I know say all kinds of racist stuff. For example, my co-worker (who works in an international environment, lived overseas etc.) started talking about Jews the other day, how they are "different" etc. And when she was looking for a babysitter for her kid she said that she didn't want a Filipina "with a face like this" and then did the slanty eye things with her eyes. :(

And when I used to teach English I was constantly wincing at the ignorant things which my students would say about immigrants. Just recently, I went to the dermatologist and he we were chatting and when I told him where he lived he said "oh, I don't like that area. Too many Chinese."

The thing is though I have to live here and I have to find a way to deal with this stuff. I often tell people off for it but it seems to fall on deaf ears. They just don't know why this stuff is incredibly offensive.

ms.bri said...

very interesting - i thought about this all day yesterday. would type more but 1 handed typing sucks.

Stranger said...

Those comments about racism in Italy are interesting-- it's quite similar here-- they pay lip service to PC, but don't really have any awareness of what's racist, so you hear stuff like "There's no racism in Turkey but we don't like Jews or Arabs." It's partly ignorance and partly unconscious. Things like trying to grab foreigners' hair is awful but also has an innocence about it-- like they're genuinely just curious what the hair feels like and don't realize the person might not share their enthusiasm.

Once, I assigned a class the writing topic 'Racsim In Turkey.' Worst assignment ever because it made me so mad to read. They all said the same things, like "There's no racism in Turkey and we love foreign people and foreign food. We hate Kurdish people but that's not racism because they're terrorists. We don't like African people because they sell drugs." Crap like that. Absolutely infuriating!

montchan (MJ Bliss) said...

When I was doing CELTA, we were dealing with that very issue during the training. We decided that teaching to say "black" was the appropriate thing to do.

Lately, I found out that when Peace Corps sends out English teachers, they are also trained to say "black".

So, you're right on!

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

I probably speak a different kind of Turkish from a different generation so I dunno if this will help. I was thinking perhaps you could use the offensive Turkish words/expressions for black people as examples. "Gunduz feneri" (daytime lantern) and "marsik" (bad charcoal, I think) comes to mind. People also might understand -- if they read the Western-influenced dailies -- that Gypsies are no longer called 'cingene' but are called 'Roman' while the Gypsies who are unaware of this shift still call themselves 'Cingene' or 'Cingen'. They used to be called 'esmer vatandas' in an attempt to be PC but the un-PC-ness of that must have become obvious at some point.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Oh, this might help if you can read Turkish:

Stranger said...

Thanks for your comments and the link Bulent-- I think I mostly understand the website-- it seems to be people giving their definitions of the word as they understand it, and contexts where they've seen it? Very interesting indeed...

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Yeah eksisozluk is interesting. In some ways you can think of it as the Turkish equivalent of Wikipedia with stricter rules for authorship. Of course, unlike Wikipedia, you don't get collaborative prose but individual entires. Much of what you cover here is also covered there, and perhaps it would be worthwhile for you to scan it to get a taste of the variety of opinion from the natives. They opine on anything and everything ranging from Karadeniz people to nationalistic outbursts with a zillion tangents. I must admit I occasionally regret leaving blog comments before skimming it. (Just happened to me above. They have both marsik, gunduz feneri plus a few I didn't think of. They also have an entry on PC.)

Anonymous said...

I am an African American female about to travel to Turkey for a year long study abroad program. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with telling foreigners that the proper term to call people of my group is African American, which of course is an American person of African descent.
Save the Black/White thing for the United States where people actually understand what context its being used in.
It is rather disheartening to see that bad stereotypes of racial and ethnic groups seem to transcend across national boundaries. Hopefully you will continue to tell people to stop using the n-word (continually spelling it out in your blog was kind of offensive). Even if African Americans use it amongst you stated earlier, its about the context, and who uses it that determines the weight of its meaning.

Stranger said...

Your comment is strangely timely, anonymous. Just yesterday I was talking to a Turkish woman about the uni where she teaches English. She said something like, "Oh, they would love to hire you. They love native speakers. We have some foreigners now, but they're African American, not really American like you."


Now, I just met this woman and we were talking on the phone, and I had to get off quickly because LE's bus driver was going to call any minute, so I didn't get into it with her.

This is a common idea here, that someone who isn't white and fair isn't *really* American or British or whatever. A lot of schools request photos with job applications so they can make sure they're getting a White person. They do this because lots of students seem to think that a person who isn't fair isn't actually a native speaker, so they complain incessantly to the admin that they want a *real* American/British/native speaker, as they were promised.

Anyway, I'm meeting this woman again this afternoon. I'll try to draw her into the same gaffe so I can set her straight.

Anonymous, good luck on your year abroad here. Despite this particular topic, I think you'll enjoy yourself. Just be prepared to give a lot of gentle explanations, as you did here.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

What? Stranger, I don't doubt you're telling the truth but how is it possible that people here think that about native speakers of English? Did some universities or language schools hire Indians/Pakistanis or Nigerians &c. at some point and tried to pass them off as native speakers? I mean is there some reasonably sane/factual basis for the belief you're talking about? Surely (through TV and movies) people do understand that the US and the UK are not 'white' countries? No?

Anonymous, hope you enjoy your stay here. You've found the right blog, IMHO, to ask questions too. (Stranger, should I perform the local ritual and use the 'yes please' or 'hello my friend' incantations to lure traffic here?)

Stranger said...

Bülent, you hit on one of my most embarrassing teaching moments. In uni prep, we were doing oral placement testing for new students. I was rating students with 2 new teachers I was training in the norming process. Both teachers were Turkish with a thorough knowledge of English but horrible usage.

Many of the students we were testing were foreign, including several Nigerians. When I found out where they were from, I was all "But why are you here? You're native speakers!" and they just shrugged in a resigned way and said they weren't sure why they were there.

Naturally, the Nigerians had better English that a lot of native speakers I know.

However, because of the students' accents and huge vocabularies, the two Turkish teachers couldn't understand them and gave them very low marks, insisting they should be in Intermediate level.

I sorted it out with the director before those kids were placed in prep, but oh dear.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Heh, I am beginning to think the real oddity is that the language of instruction is English now in many Turkish universities. Turks are doing the bulk of the teaching and Turks are doing the learning but as far as I can tell from what I have heard/seen, neither the teachers nor the students seem very comfortable with the language being used.

Not that I really taught it in English either, but I can't imagine teaching Computer Science solely using Turkish sources (nor would it be good for the students, but I digress). On the other hand, it would be hard for many students to struggle with spoken English in addition to the material being taught. I suspect a one-year prep class would be insufficient for many. How did your prep students fare? Did the instructors teaching regular courses switch to Turkish in class from time to time? I don't imagine they even attempted to use English during office hours. Did they?

Oh, and, lemme give you a link. I found this when I was trying to find out about the Gulen people (last time I lived here, they were not big at all). Perhaps some of the posters there will look familiar to you. Here.

Stranger said...

Bülent, I forgot to tell you that you have my full permission to welcome newcomers in the traditional way. If only you could figure out a way virtually to jump out at them unexpectedly, perhaps holding a menu of "beautiful Turkish kitchen" or a board of postcards for sale?

I also forgot to say I hardly fault the Turks who think native English speakers should be white. I suppose there are plenty of Americans, British, Australians, and Canadians who also think of their countries as white. It's only in recent years that a majority of TV/movies have started portraying non-whites as caricatures, or limiting them to ethnic or historical stories. And I could be mistaken saying it's a "majority." Certainly in movies with battles the Black guy still almost always gets killed, especially if he's recently done something honorable or heroic.

I could only get through about 2 pages of that forum. Goodness, aren't people long-winded! And what is it about Internet arguments that they have to be so polarized? And if someone disagrees it just leads to an ad hominem attack rather than some sort of compromise.

The truth about the uni in question is somewhere in the middle of what folks were saying in the first 2 pages. It's not a jihad camp, but it's not a hotbed of intellectualism and critical, forward-thinking either. But it's better than some places and worse than others.

I've actually been offered a job there again, and the only thing really making me take pause is the crap salary, and that this school has the least number of vacation days, especially in summer.

On the other hand, the staff are mostly really decent, dedicated people. Some of the Turks in Prep were true scholars of English like of never seen, and consistently whipped my ass at online Scrabble. While students were immature and often narrow in their thinking, they were also polite and relatively well-behaved-- none of that crap like what I heard about in places like Bilgi. The students were getting better because the minimum ÖSS score has gone up, and the school is (I think) improving as it ages. Departments are finding more time to carry out real improvements rather than just damage control. The posts I was reading on that forum were from 2006, only 8 years after the school opened and a lot of things were in a complete mess then, not least of which were the constant power failures. But I think a lot of those growing pains have passed, and they've been doing some innovative things in Prep at least.

Interesting was the one post that said they "scrupulously" adhere to secularism. That's true, but not the way the poster meant. It's not because they want to be secular that they're so careful, it's because they want to get away with being *exactly* as religious as they can and still be within the general confines of law. It was an interesting juggling act at times.

Stranger said...

Speaking of long-winded, I exceeded the character limit for comments but I want to address the English-medium uni thing. With the exception of the better schools like Koç and Sabancı, the English-medium promise is just business and lip-service. Prep doesn't even come close to preparing most students for English-medium instruction-- how it that possible in one year to go from beginning to university level English? Of course there were a few exceptions, but failure rates after a year of prep where I worked were around 80%. The only reason students "passed" was because they were allowed multiple re-takes, and the passing score got lower each time, usually to 25 or 30% on the last re-take.

With that in mind, my goal was mostly to teach strategies for dealing with large amounts of written and spoken material, structuring essays, and a lot of comparative rhetoric. I had no illusions that more than a handful of every 50 students would ever go on to use English productively in their lives.

Of course, university classes and prep classes with Turkish teachers were taught mostly in Turkish. How could they not be, unless the teacher didn't speak Turkish? One year, I pretended I didn't speak Turkish so I could spy on my students. The next year, I used Turkish with them to try to engage them. There were plusses and minuses with those tactics. My third year, I told them I didn't speak Turkish but made it obvious I understood them. For some reason that was most effective.

I've known a lot of foreign professors who have to get a crash course in ELT from people like me, and they usually re-write their entire curricula after meeting their students. If you don't speak Turkish, your goal has to change from teaching your students the necessary material to teaching the students a sort of sheltered English curriculum with about 25% of the material you originally planned to use as the content.

If a class was taught largely in English, the professor would be stormed by the entire lecture hall after class, either to ask questions or to get him/her to repeat the lesson in Turkish. Most professors naturally would opt to teach the lesson in Turkish rather than deal with this, though they would certainly take time to berate the prep dept for insufficiently training students while doing absolutely nothing when we tried to get them to partner with us somehow. I suppose the minority of foreign students who spoke little or no Turkish in those classes just had to fend for themselves.

One problem Turkish teachers face with using only English is, I think, being perceived as rude or uncooperative. I've known very few Turks who can pull off teaching primarily in English and have their students like them enough to engage with the material (typical Turkish students-- if they don't love their teacher, they can't do their work, and not loving the teacher is an acceptable excuse). I know they're supposed to teach in English, but I can't imagine how it must feel to share a language with the 50 people staring at you, yet attempting to muddle along in a language you're not too comfortable speaking, then refusing to answer questions so students understand.

Longest comment ever? :)

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...


It's not because they want to be secular that they're so careful, it's because they want to get away with being *exactly* as religious as they can and still be within the general confines of law.

There's actually not much wrong with this. That's how I would expect people to behave in a public institution in a secular country. The law's there to protect the students and not transform the beliefs of the faculty. Of course, in a 'private' school, if we didn't have the kind of implicit gov't control, I'd say leave the school alone to do whatever. All this concealed piety is making stealth and perhaps deceit a part of life for these people. I don't see why this is good. Though, I must admit, if had a devious plan to keep people both religious and inside/under some hierarchy while making sure their religiosity doesn't get too much in the way while learning, I'd be thankful for such laws while faking irritation with them. Anyway.

Did the graduating kids take the GREs etc? How did they do in verbal? I mean, there are several standardized tests that would at least help the parents [and more sensible students] understand what their kids are or are not learning. (It somehow feels more appropriate to mention parents in the Turkish U. context than it would be in the US. Is it just me?). Could they at least read, say, sci-fi (or whatever seems interesting to them) paperbacks? My completely uninformed gut feeling is that there won't be any good solution to this problem until/unless primary and secondary schools start doing a better job with foreign languages. Turkish is too different from English and exposure later in life [and in Turkey] is probably too late for people with average motivation.

You are right about the style of argument online. What makes it hard is that threaded conversations don't happen in these web-based things. We did have them decades ago, but it turns out people prefer prettified web interfaces where a lot of space is wasted and where tangents stay with the main conversation in a linear fashion.

Stranger said...

I didn't particularly mind it either, how the school so carefully stayed secular. It did create some interesting situations, like how they tiptoed so carefully around the few girls who would wear headscarves under their wigs and they would have to tactfully find a way to make them stop. Or that classes were scheduled during Cuma namazı even though all the students would disappear to pray (but not the teachers). Some of the foreigners tried to make the admin take a stand on this because the kids who lost an hour of lessons on Fridays would be behind the others and it was inconvenient. We suggested they either A) cancel lessons during namaz and hold them in the afternoon, or B) schedule quizzes during namaz to force the students to stay. The admin wouldn't do either one, and just wouldn't really discuss it. When the topic came up in a meeting, accusations started flying that we were anti-Muslim and intolerant because we were suggesting this change, with the accusers being the 2 American converts.

For the most part, students' English reading level wasn't even close to being able to read even low-level books-- most could barely manage the graded readers for EFL. I don't really know how they managed their coursework, but there seemed to be a bit of a translation underground, where former students or strong students posted translations of reading material online. Otherwise, it would be impossible. That's the irony of the English-medium university in Turkey: what the students are required to do with the tools given to them is impossible unless they can find a way to get around using English. And they have many clever ways of doing that. It's shame their efforts have to be wasted on stuff like that.

I know of one of my former students who took the GREs, but he was truly an exceptional kid and fared quite well. A few others I'm still in touch with have gone on to do MAs in English-medium universities in Europe where no one spoke Turkish. I'm guessing they had enough of a basis to learn well in the immersion situation, but they probably floundered for a few months. But that's all prep really can do-- give the kids a solid base to continue learning English on their own if they choose.

Improving English instruction in elementary and high school is one solution. Another is for the unis to be more realistic and less forgiving. Prep is kind of a farce because every knows it's insufficient. English-medium is a farce because everyone knows there will be as little English as possible. One reason the Koç/Sabancı type schools are more successful is because students who fail English 2 times are expelled (which is normal to me). Most universities keep students even when it's obvious they have no business in uni, whether it's because of behavior, poor performance, or complete lack of interest & motivation.

It is reasonable to include the parents, though at my old school most of them were no help because their own education was so incomplete they had absolutely NO IDEA what their kids were up against, and had no way to support them academically. For a lot of those kids I think it was a small miracle they even graduated from high school.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

They had converts there? I suppose that makes sense.

I agree with the rest except the expulsion part. I can see how it can be unavoidable, but if a school finds itself expelling many undergraduate students, it should, IMHO, review its teaching and admission policies. They don't get a say in admission here, of course.

The rest of what you describing is the kind of disgrace that unfortunately one gets used to here. Of course kids in Turkey today have access to and are going for more years of education than their parents. So in general the potential for parental guidance and help will necessarily be minimal. I don't see how else it could be in a country like Turkey. To make up for it, though, we have holders of public trust who are supposed to make sure these schools do what they claim to do. If, after five or six years (counting prep) of university education in English, the graduates cannot even read books, then somebody somewhere is betraying the public trust.

I don't think what you are describing is specific to Fatih U. either. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out they are somewhat better than average. Perhaps I wouldn't feel so bad if I didn't know how much effort is sunk by students (and money by their parents) into just OSS, not to mention the expense and effort involved in completing the studies. For that kind of investment at least some semblance of properly accredited (or accreditable by reasonable standards) education should be gotten. Functional illiteracy in the purported language of instruction is hardly a good sign that this goal is even close to being attained. Grr.

Anyhow, I'm tempted to mumble that Rome wasn't built in a day, but given what this city is that doesn't make me feel any better. Perhaps we better not ask why things seem so broken here but rather ask how on earth this country manages to function as well as it does. It sure seems to, much of the time.