Nick: Are you all right?
Honey: Of course, dear. I just want to put some powder on my nose.
George: Show her where we keep the … euphemism.
Martha: I’m sorry. I want to show you the house anyway.
Honey: We’ll be back, dear.
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
One of the marks of the avant garde across the centuries has been an eagerness to mock the the polite sensibilities of society. Played by Richard Burton in the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the character George mocks Honey for offering a genteel euphemism — powder on my nose — in place of a direct request to use the toilet. While much of the power of the film comes from the performances of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and George Segal, in its day the language and lives of its characters was considered shocking. Watching the film today we are more likely to be shocked by the unhealthy personal habits — drinking and smoking — than by the language or morality on display.
Whether it is “He who must not be named”, e.g., Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series or Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish Question), e.g., the Nazi name for the Holocaust, euphemisms as The New Criterion has observed are a form of timidity that refuses to call untoward realities by their correct names.
The word “youths” (jeunes) when used in the press is a euphemism known to all Frenchmen. It means Muslim. The summer of 2005 saw rioting by “youths” in the HLM high-rise estates, or cités HLM, across France and there have been recurring outbreaks of violence each summer. In May Reuters reported on the rioting in Sweden — employing the same euphemism of “youths” to describe who was involved.
The British equivalent euphemism is “Asian”. When reports of crimes by Asian youths appear in the press, no British reader believes the junior division of the Red Dragon tong, or bands of Hindus or Sikhs are involved. Asian is the press code for a Muslim from the arc of countries from Morocco to Bangladesh.
An article by AFP that formed the basis of stories in Libération, Le Monde and other Parisian dailies offers a recent example of the euphemism at work. On Saturday the New York Times reported the underlying incident:
France’s worst train accident in years, an official with the national rail company said Saturday. The crowded intercity train, leaving Paris at rush hour before a holiday weekend for the city of Limoges, jumped the tracks 20 miles south at Brétigny-sur-Orge station. The seven-car train split into two, with some cars riding up the station platform and flipping over.
Six people died, two were in critical condition and seven more were in serious condition, officials said; 21 others were still in the hospital. More than 190 people were treated at the site for lesser injuries.
The second day French stories added a twist to the tragedy. A pack of “youths” attempted to strip the dead of their belongings. Le Monde‘s print edition reported:
Le ministre des transports, Frédéric Cuvillier, a indiqué, samedi 13 juillet sur i-Télé, n’avoir pas eu connaissance “de victimes dépouillées” par des délinquants après la catastrophe ferroviaire de Brétigny-sur-Orge, comme des rumeurs en font état depuis la veille. Le ministre a fait état d'”actes isolés”, d'”une personne interpellée”, d'”une tentative de vol de portable” au préjudice d’un secouriste, de “pompiers qui, par petits groupes, ont été accueillis de façon un peu rude”. Mais de “véritables actes commis en bande, non“, a dit le ministre qui a ajouté qu'”à (sa) connaissance“, il n’y avait pas eu “de victimes dépouillées“. Tout de suite après l’accident, selon des témoins interrogés par Le Monde, une trentaine de venus des environs ont tenté de voler des effets des victimes, sacs, portables ou autres. Ils ont également caillassé les pompiers qui intervenaient. Puis ils ont été évacués hors du périmètre par les CRS. Les échauffourées se sont poursuivies encore quelques temps, avant de s’apaiser.
Transport Minister, Frédéric Cuvillier told i-Télé on Saturday, July 13 he had no knowledge of criminal delinquents “stripping the victims” following the Brétigny-sur-Orge train disaster, as rumors indicated yesterday. The minister reported “isolated incidents”, “a person arrested” for the “attempted theft of laptop” and a stated a “small group of firefighters received a rough welcome”. ” But “real acts” [of violence]? No,” The minister added that “to his knowledge” there had been no “stripped of victims.” Immediately after the accident, according to witnesses interviewed by Le Monde, about thirty youths from the area tried to steal the bags and cellphones of the victims. They also stoned firefighters. Then they were moved out of area by the CRS. The clashes continued for some time afterwards.
An American reader, were he unfamiliar with the euphemisms used by the European press, might well assume a gang of juvenile delinquents was involved. Perhaps the Sharks and Jets? The deployment of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) to disperse the gangs and the mention of stone throwing are likely to solidify the impression in the average reader those involved were Muslim youth of Arab, North African or African extraction.
Is the press doing its job when it resorts to this sort of short hand? I believe not. Not every French delinquent is Muslim. But for fear of causing offense to those who are perpetually aggrieved, the euphemism “youth” gives the impression that all criminals are young Muslims — or all Muslim youth are criminals. The attempt to avoid stigmatizing some members of a disaffected minority serves to stigmatize all.
Lousy reporting plays its part in poisoning social relations between communities. Who’s afraid of the youths of France? The AFP for one.