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The Great Renaming.

WHILE VARIOUS CAMPUS EXTREMISTS in America are demanding “safe spaces” for students who can’t bear being triggered by the awfulness of words, and others in South Africa and Oxford are demanding the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is busy carrying out its own version of rewriting history. Curators are going through the titles and descriptions of its numerous exhibits with the intention of removing “offensive”, ie, racist, words and replacing them with something more correct.

The purpose of this exercise, according to the museum’s head of history, Martine Gosselink, is simply to make an “adjustment to make people aware.” Now that the Netherlands is a modern, postcolonial, multicultural paradise, the narrative goes, those of non-native stock must not be triggered by the terminology of the past.

gosselink“The point is not to use names given by whites to others,” says Ms Gosselink. That’s despite the fact that it was whites who created the paintings in the first place and then gathered them together in collections. And whites who, presumably, are deciding at this very minute to give those non-white people different names from the ones the whites gave them originally. But white is the new pejorative in our culturally “aware” society, and liberal guilt is as popular as ever.

It seems small beer when you read the examples. Words such as “negro”, “dwarf”, “Hottentot”, “slave”, “Indian”, “Moor” and “Mohammedan” are on the hit list. I don’t see the problem with “negro”, which these days is rather neutral; unless the Dutch use has stronger overtones — even so, is it good to treat everyone as a child? Likewise with the others. Does anyone really get upset by the use of “Moor” or “Indian” except the terminally correct or those hypersensitive to the tiniest of microaggressions? “Mohammedan” is really bizarre. I’ve no idea how that can be regarded as offensive, especially since it accurately describes Muslims, ie, as followers of Mohammed.

One of the examples provided is a painting by Jans Maris. Originally entitled “Young negro girl”, this has now been updated to “Young girl holding a fan”. I can’t help but suspect that the blackness of the girl was a key element of the painting’s distinctiveness — a point which is lost in the new title. In their eagerness to appear inclusive, the curators may be perpetrating a historical falsehood — by making it appear that what is unusual today, ie, the presence of large numbers of non-white people, was commonplace when the painting was made — which is not the case.

As current events show, nothing renamed in the name of political correctness can be relied upon to survive its own commissars for long.

The curators may think they’re fulfilling a high moral purpose here, one which they probably do not think will be superseded, but as current events show, nothing renamed in the name of political correctness can be relied upon to survive its own commissars for long. The push for ever greater purity is relentless. Soon it will be unacceptable to distinguish people by their sex: “girl” and “woman” will be out. What was called exotic will be reclassified as normal, and the normal designated the oppressive.

Imagine, then, the painting of Margarethe van Raepshorst attended by her black servant boy, with its description eventually corrected to “An oppressed and enslaved young (possible self-identifying) male of colour holding the pearls of a female representative of the western colonial capitalist class as she celebrates her white hegemonic privilege.”

That would leave us in no doubt as to how we should think, because we clearly cannot be left to cope with the complexities of historical context on our own. The twitchy, thin-skinned offence-takers and the commissars of correctness between them will do our thinking for us. Until the next bunch of culture police turns up and bundles them off into the gulag. Who knows what will be correct then?


suxcoverPoet, writer and lecturer, Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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