December 25, 2007
Fishmonger Attitude and French Arab Illiteracy in Public Relations
I’ve just had this exchange on Ibn Kafka’s blog with a French Muslim blogger who nicknames herself La Voilée (The Veiled). Disillusioned by the French Republic’s liberticidal radical secularism and discrimination, she decided to start a blog communicating about her life as a veiled woman there. Though my distaste for the veil is not a secret for anyone here, it's important to remind that it remains a matter of individual choice. The whole French debate about it was completely displaced and misrepresented as proponents versus detractors of the veil, when it should have been about, God forbid, liberties and minority issues.
I applauded La Voilée’s initiative as it has the potential to provide a much needed alternative view about those issues. But when I read some of her comments in an entry comparing 19th century bearded women to today’s veiled women, I had this perception that their tone was the all too common knee-jerk aggressive-defensive “tough guy” one prevailing among French Arabs when they’re feeling judged.
To be fair, she was replying to a typical French racist half-wit. I can’t reproduce the relevant comments since they have apparently been deleted, but she basically missed an easy opportunity to be soft spoken and therefore more French "Gaulois" appealing - as opposed to the racist moron. The content of her answer to my critic – of which she completely missed the point – on Ibn Kafka’s blog is still there though. It is somehow representative of what I’m talking about.
My comment related to her was (translating from French):
A short constructive criticism, if I may, about the form of your speech. If you want to convey a message, do it on a more neutral, detached, tone. What may be a passionate or a fighter tone in your case, will rather be received as aggressive and hysterical and will harm the content of your message. Whereas among the receivers there are people with whom trying to communicate is a complete waste of time, there are others, more floating opinions, who you might bring to your side. (…)
[further to Ibn Kafka] I am not against any tone, provided it’s used knowingly. In this case, one of the problems that harms French Woggery the most – I am not talking specifically about La Voilée – is the tone that (…) comes through as whiney, hysterical, scummy, petty bully, etc. If this is the goal among those in that population who evoke it, then good for them, they reached it. (…)
My criticism – humble and without sarcasm – and its tone are actually an indication as to how much I believe in what La Voilée is doing (my strictly personal anti-veil opinion aside) and I hope she’s able to listen.
Extracts from her answer, in a strange mixture of overly formal French (typical of working class French Arabs trying to express themselves in an “educated way”) and aggressive pace and content:
I don’t know if you’ve read my posts (a priori no…). (…) I am not hysterical, even though there are reasons to be so. I’m not trying to convince people of accepting my hijab as a religious precept. I’m only trying to describe how a social phenomenon (in this case, the hijab) is perceived [metaphysical paragraph about the meaning of sociology] (…)
I’ll stop here on this point. I think I’ve been clear. I’m not here to justify myself. I don’t want to quibble about it. If you’re in good faith, reading my writing will be enough because it shows, in a very explicit manner, what I just explained.
Otherwise, I do not allow you to speak of “French Woggery”. It’s extremely scornful and of an incredible vulgarity. Provocation is replaced by stupidity. Besides, if I may, what harms the most whom you arrogantly call “French Woggery” (which, as an aside, disgusts me deeply) is exclusion, stereotyping [rant] (…)
Thank you for believing I’m “able to listen”, despite my tendency to hysteria, whining, agressivity, etc. Your trust honors me. Really.
And rest assured, I could note, without much difficulty, your modesty. But don’t overdo it, it’ll kill you.
I gave up there. This exchange isn’t the theme of this entry though. It’s only a case in point of a very recurring “shoot myself in the foot” attitude among French Arabs.
While fishmonger slang is forgiven and one can become a media darling or even a minister when being a Muslim Reformist Hero of Fadela Amara’s kind, other French Arabs start with a serious image handicap that would normally impose an extra-care in public speaking. Even more so in the case of Arab men or veiled women, both incarnating the violent, delinquent, suppressing, irrational fanaticism in French mainstream subconscious.
I don’t know the actual motives behind each individual French Arab who chose to appear on TV, speak on a radio, write a column, create a blog... But I would assume that for most, there’s partly the chance to defend a point of view. More often than not though, they’re a waste of the media opportunities we get. The personal insecurities of those people come out way too easily, and while they claim to fight against discrimination, the stereotyping and such, they’re actually reinforcing them.
Packaging is as important as the content. An audience will be receptive to a message if it identifies with the packaging. The thicker the accent, the more foreign or working class the body language, the more insecure the tone, the bigger distance is put with the French “Gaulois” audience. No matter the legitimacy of the content, a bad form will not buy sympathy.
For whatever reason, I often fail to explain this simple concept to many of my fellow French Arabs. The accusation, like in the above, of arrogance that comes in return to such comments is far from being new to me (“French Woggery” or not). I’m willing to reconsider my own attitude, but my impression is the problem goes beyond: criticism simply leads to an accusation of arrogance, period.
Solving this might be the Holy Grail to fixing many major issues for French Arabs. If you have an idea on how, let me know.
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You know a legitimately delicate subject. On one hand one should be free to rant. On the other hand your underlying point re PR is well taken.
It is a reality the a Collier Lounsbury can be a complete bastid and that's pretty much it. But a Veiled Lady posting explicitly as such, well, it has implications, the more so because of the rarity of the communication. But at the same time, what's the trade off btw community image and personal expression?
Evidently one is free to post as one wants, but the rather poor PR for the "Western Muslim Community" - dominated as it were by the angry, the alienated and the simply not well-acculturated - is a bit of a problem in the aggregate.
Not an easy trade off. The voilee of course has every right to vent, and I fully understand the need. But is an opp. being missed?
Not easy this balance.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 26, 2007 01:41 PM
Only thing I’m uncomfortable with is the lack of analysis underlying such behavior, i.e. the “knowingly” part is absent.
Not wanting to single out La Voilée, but using her as an illustration of a pattern I’ve seen more often than I have patience for:
- Her tendency to overuse arts freshman essay bits in her speech indicates a desire for upward social mobility. Is sticking to the stereotype of the uptight, humorless, aggressive veiled girl going to help her achieve the social recognition she’s seeking?
- Without questioning in any way the absolute right of any individual to free speech the way they see it fit, the individual behavior that negatively impacts the aggregate ultimately impacts said individual too in general. Is this element of analysis present?
- Is she really acting in her best interest (maximizing utility in satisfaction retrieved from venting on that tone vs. satisfaction retrieved from defending her case and that of others like her)?
Being an Arab/Muslim in France can be hell sometimes, and the temptation is big to let if off. The satisfaction one can get on the spot is huge for sure. If weighted against the cost of doing it, and the conclusion is “it’s worth it” all tradeoffs considered, in a very individual analysis of one’s best interests, then fair enough. I don’t think this mental operation is done very often though.