I remember when I took my oath of citizenship thirty years ago. After searching for more than thirty years prior to that, I had finally arrived home, in a country I could be proud of, because I was being accepted – warts, accent, vocabulary, biases, and all – I was finally a Canadian. In the previous countries I had lived in, including the land of my birth, I had been a fringe dweller, tolerated, but not really wanted. Here, I was welcomed, if I could believe the citizenship judge, to a land that was open, a country that sought to harness everyone’s contribution and make it an even better place than it was.
Therefore, I eagerly made my contribution: earning my way, paying my taxes, honoring my civic responsibilities like voting in elections (which a lot of Canadians still don’t do!), raising a family, even sponsoring an extended one, and starting businesses that harnessed the contribution of others. I thought I was fulfilling my duty. There was only one downside, which I didn’t dwell over too much: my vocabulary began to change. I had to learn the “eh” language; and while on duty in the corporate world, I had to digest my share of buzzwords: “solutioning,” “productizing,” and “leveraging,” – nouns turned into verbs by lazy linguists who had studied spreadsheets instead of literature. But I “soldiered” on and retired to live out my last phase on what I had stored in the granary through personal toil, hoping, at least, never to have to alter my speech again, now that I was finally the boss and sole employee of “Me Inc.”
Then something strange started to happen. The word game began again, this time earnestly and more insidiously. Certain words I had always used became, for some self-appointed guardians of righteousness, no longer socially acceptable: “he” and “she” had to be referred to as “they,” “manpower” became “human resources,” “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”—even “husband” or “wife”— became “partner,” “deaf” became “hearing impaired,” “blind” became “visually impaired,” “fat” became “overweight,” “illegal immigrant” became “irregular immigrant,” and so on. It began slowly and has now reached a tsunami of re-versioning. I started to compile a glossary of old vs. new words, just so that I could keep up. I couldn’t keep up. I also had to learn new words that came out frequently in a companion dictionary to the old Oxford one, called “Urban”: slut-shaming, mansplaining, glamping, shexting, borking – the list went on – it was a whole bloody dictionary, remember. Oh, I’m not supposed to say “bloody” – sorry!
Very soon, I was tongue-tied at parties, for I stammered, forced to back-track words I uttered automatically that were now looked upon with frowns. I thought I was hearing a foreign language parading as English. I got used to the snigger behind my back: “Oh, he’s old.” I started feeling like the fringe dweller of yore. I was even grateful for the pandemic, for it provided a temporary respite from going out to parties.
Then I saw the symbols upon which this country had been founded being taken down, because they were suddenly unfashionable: statues, names of institutions because they were associated with past transgressions (who hasn’t transgressed? – let them cast the first stone!), even history books were being re-written, with that ugly word “colonial” being relegated to “bad guy” status, despite history, from earliest times, being a continuous activity of colonisation. This country I had come to was becoming an alien place. The Communists did the same thing during the Cultural Revolution in China, as did the Stalinists in the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Over here, we weren’t being as brutal about it, but we were doing it in our own polite way, nevertheless.
There was something even more sinister taking place that went beyond trendy words and unfashionable symbols. Writers were being frowned upon for writing “culturally insensitive” material. Suddenly, libidinous men, amoral women, crooked people belonging to minority groups, gender fluids, immigrants, blacks, indigenous and other marginalized types had to be treated with utmost caution, referred to kindly, or omitted altogether from our work, especially from works of fiction. A tiny sliver of history – Western civilisation – was being judged by today’s morality, while the rest of the world got a free pass. Imagination had become subservient to fact. Art had to follow politically correct guidelines.
I took stock of myself. I am a colonial, I can’t take the colonial out of me, or hide it. I am the product of Portuguese, Dutch, and English colonizers of Ceylon, and I sought a home in one of the British Empire’s far-flung dominions – Canada. I came here for the freedom, not for the money. Freedom is the greatest value proposition of the west, not resources, climate, or scenery. When I arrived those many years ago, I had been welcomed as openly as the Afghan refugee fleeing an unjust war, or the Vietnamese travelling in a leaky boat. Just like them, I learned Canadian-speak, aka “eh language” (dumbing down my colonial vocabulary to gain Canadian fluency, which I eagerly did), including that horrible business-speak of nouns converted into verbs. Now, are they telling me that I have to learn a whole new language, driven not by evolution but by trend, and by the militancy of a minority of politically uptight folk? Why the heck must I emphasize the need to be addressed by the pronouns “he/him” when that was always the case? Am I supposed to pay homage to new cultural symbols and say goodbye to familiar ones? And as for my writing, can it only be explicit and critical about one person – me?! NFW (that’s “no f______ way,” by the way, my contribution to the Urban Dictionary, if they will allow it).
Empires do strike back. George Lucas even suggested we will be doing this well into the future, and we all bought that premise by relegating Star Wars to cult status. Well, this empire-ist…this…this colonial relic… is striking back. I have no choice, if but for survival. Morality cannot be updated like technology – it’s hardwired because it has withstood the test of time. I have no problem in giving up rights of freedom when fighting a visible or invisible foe that threatens mankind (not “humankind” – please note) like Hitler, Stalin, or Covid-19, until that foe is vanquished, but I certainly am not giving up my freedom to a raucous minority of historically ill-informed, bleeding-hearts who are feeling threatened by my anachronistic words and symbols. I am not critical of their choice of words, symbols, or pronouns; therefore, leave me the use of mine.
I’m sending this article to the editor in the hope that he (not “they,” you will note) has at least smelled the coffee and is drinking it, instead of the Kool-Aid that’s flooding out of the Urban Dictionary, and that he will publish this piece in support of loyal Canadians who have now found this country an unfamiliar place. And I am hoping that Canada will continue to be the country that is open to all opinions and words, not just those of a loud-mouthed, self-righteous faction who saw a chink in the armour of this gentle land and capitalized on it, demanding the polite majority bow in apology.
Happy New Year!