On Jan. 26, the Associated Press Stylebook Twitter account sent a poorly thought-out tweet. The famous authority on literary guidelines recommended writers avoid using “dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated.”
The tweet went viral, with commenters mocking the AP stylebook for including “the French.” The French embassy in Washington joked that it should change its name to “Embassy of Frenchness.” A New York Times headline stated, “The French want to remain the French.” A French politician responded, “We are the French.”
The Stylebook ended up retracting the term “the French,” while maintaining the stance that such labels poorly reflect the diversity of such groups.
Humor aside, there is something worth contemplating in the internet’s response to the AP’s gaffe. After all, can’t we rightly say, “the French speak a romance language,” “the French developed Haute Couture” or even “the French enjoy escargots as a traditional delicacy”?
Perhaps this usage is vague and does not represent the diversity of perspectives within French society (some French people may not like escargots). But we all have a certain conception of French culture and life. Is it such a travesty to use a catch-all term for convenience? Such generalizations exist because, frankly, language is a practice in brevity, not accuracy. What is so wrong with trying to get a point across quickly?
This incident led me to reflect on a story from earlier in the news cycle. In Nov. 2022, Dave Chappelle delivered a monologue on Saturday Night Live that was rightly received with concern and criticism. Chappelle’s performance included his thoughts on the Kanye West antisemitism scandal.
Among other antisemitic statements, West had tweeted that he would go “Death Con 3 on the Jews.” During his routine, Chappelle whispered, “There are two words in the English language that you should never say together in sequence: ‘The’ and ‘Jews.’” Chappelle then engaged in a wide variety of antisemitic tropes, mainly centering around the idea that “the Jews” control Hollywood.
“The Jews.” “The French.” Why are these two phrases different? Why do the French revel in being called French and Jews react to Chappelle’s “the Jews” with concern and anger?
The answer is simple: Chappelle did not use “the Jews” as a descriptor. He didn’t use it simply to point out an issue with Hollywood. He used the term as a storyteller. He tapped into familiar themes and ideas to build his narrative. He tapped into the poison that has lured entire societies into genocide and destruction. He used “the Jews” in the same way Nazi-era German signs warned “No Jews or dogs allowed.” He knew what the backlash to his statements would be; in fact, he planned on it. He knew what such statements have led to in the past, but he didn’t care.
One wonders what would have happened if the Stylebook tweet had said “the Jews” instead of “the French.” Would there have been similar viral mockery of the Stylebook? Would Jews have been outraged? Or would the tweet have gotten no reaction at all?
It’s impossible to know, but what isn’t disputed is that, regardless of the truth of Chappelle’s criticism of Hollywood, he did not say “the Jews” the way people say “the French.” He said it with conspiratorial disdain and malice. Accordingly, his routine was the first step down a well-travelled road, in which people come to believe that the Jews control the world and then slowly but surely drive them to the margins of society, rendering them helpless before the abuse of the majority.
It has been close to six months since Chappelle delivered his monologue. Undoubtedly, there are many people who hope that his statements have disappeared from public consciousness. This is naive. Antisemitism has existed for thousands of years, and narratives that old don’t simply go away, no matter how enlightened society may have become. People like Kanye West will continue to preach antisemitism; people like Dave Chappelle will continue to enable them; and the rest of us must combat them as fervently as we can.
Samuel Benzaquen is a law student at McGill University.