October 13th, 2009

This piece in the Economist got my wife all riled up yesterday. “Bastards saying bad things about us! Who the hell do they think they are?!” and all that. Fair enough. It seems to be one of those pieces which uses mostly easily verifiable and undeniable facts to support a conclusion not all will like, and the tone of the article is rather negative. I’m inclined to sympathise.

But one thing that got lzh’s blood boiling was the word “goose-stepping”, and I got to wondering if the word is actually derogatory in and of itself. Here’s the sentence in question:

Goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles filed through Tiananmen Square, past the eponymous Gate of Heavenly Peace, where, 60 years ago, as every Chinese schoolchild is taught (wrongly, it now seems), Mao Zedong declared that the Chinese people had “stood up”.

It is clear from this sentence, and from the whole paragraph and many similar references scattered through the article, that the author is trying to build a rather ominous picture of military might on open display. There is even a reference to 19th century Prussia and Japan (ooh…) for those who may have found the article too subtle.

Now here’s my question: For me, the word goose-stepping refers purely to a style of marching. It’s a style I find immensely uncomfortable- a few minutes with my first years, a couple of third years, and a drill instructor during first year military training at my school in Taiyuan was more than enough. It’s a style I really don’t like to watch because it looks so unnatural and uncomfortable. But it’s just a style of marching. At least, that’s how it is in my brain. Indeed, when I watched the parade, I did not like to see how the soldiers were marching because of how uncomfortable and unnatural that style of marching looks to me, but I was very impressed with the soldiers and the incredible stamina and discipline they displayed.

But then I got to thinking about it: It’s a style of marching one generally associates with Nazi Germany and evil, menacing Commie soldiers. So perhaps there is something offensive about the word “goose-stepping”. But wherein lies the offense? In the word itself, or in the kinds of soldiers we associate it with? After all, your average Chinese might not see much to worry about in Communism, but for those of us raised in “the West” it has long been held up as a boogeyman and the soldiers of “Communist” countries portrayed as a menacing, mindless, faceless horde of evil threatening to swarm into our happy, Capitalist lands and enslave us. And of course, there’s no need to comment further on the Nazi association.

Tangent: And so we see that all media is propaganda.

And so here I am wondering whether the word “goose-stepping” should be considered offensive. For me, personally, it is a simple, value-free statement of fact to say that the Chinese soldiers taking part in the National Day parade were goose-stepping. On the other hand, given the associations the word “goose-stepping” brings to mind and the overall tone of the article, I certainly understand why lzh took offense and fully agree with her opinion on the article.

And so I put the questions to you: Is the word “goose-stepping” offensive? Why or why not?

18 Responses to “goosestepping?”

  1. Brendan Says:

    Argh, just wrote a long comment only to have it eaten by a CAPTCHA typo. Short version:

    1) “Goose-stepping” definitely has unfortunate associations in English, thanks to its association with fascism.

    2) Chinese English-language media including Xinhua and China Daily used the term when describing preparations for the 10/1 parade, which makes it fair game as far as I’m concerned, even if the writers were unfamiliar with the connotations of the term.

    3) Comparing the National Day parade to a Nazi rally would be way out of line, but would anyone really argue that it wasn’t fascist?

    3a) Let’s construct a hypothetical argue that just uses the word “marching” (a word that I myself still find creepy, but that’s probably more to do with my own issues) and provides a neutral-language description of the tens of thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep, tanks, missiles, and massive human-pixel display. Is this really going to sound all that much better?

  2. Brendan Says:

    (Oops — in 3a) that should be “a hypothetical article.” That’s what I get for being hasty.)

  3. wangbo Says:

    Brendan, sorry about the loss of a comment.

    To make it clear: I would never compare the National Day parade to a Nazi anything. However, to argue that it was or was not fascist would require firstly a commonly accepted definition of fascism. I don’t see that we have one, as the f-word is bandied about a bit too loosely these days.

    Secondly, I am striving to see this in the most objective light possible. Displays of national military might and nationalist passion make me uncomfortable, too, but I didn’t really see much cause for unnecessary concern (apart from the nukes, of course). Firstly, one would expect nationalism at a National Day parade (or equivalent celebration) anywhere. Secondly, soldiers everywhere I trained to march in lockstep (except when they’re crossing bridges) on such occasions, and equivalent principles are applied to military vehicles, and such occasions are a part of the military’s ceremonial role. The “massive human-pixel display” does not strike me as being a Commie first. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen similar images in Western countries.

    But actually, the politics don’t interest me. I’m interested in purely linguistic questions here. Yes, I do think a neutral-language description could have easily been written. I’m pretty sure I could’ve written negative, neutral and positive descriptions of the parade had I chosen to. The Economist seems to me to have set out to present the issues in the most menacing possible light. Would a hypothetical neutral or positive article sound any better to you? No. Nor to me. But that’s not the point. Most people don’t read all that deeply and take what’s presented in the media at face value.

    And I’m still left asking my original question: Is the word “goose-stepping” itself offensive, or is it the associations (unfortunate to say the least) it has that freak us out?

  4. Claire Says:

    Like many terms, I don’t think “goose-stepping” was originally meant to be derogatory, however I can definitely see how it has gained a negative connotation over the years. I see it most often used in a negative way meaning, I believe, to imply the particular group in mention is precise and strong, yet mindless, dangerous, and to be feared.

    I think that, like you said, most of the derogatory nature of the term stems from the surrounding text and the way this particular author was clearly using it in a negative way to enhance the fearsome picture he was painting of the parade. It seems to me that for many people from the “West,” it will probably always have a slightly negative connotation, though, regardless of the surrounding text, for the exact reasons you mentioned above.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is, although “goose-stepping” isn’t inherently offensive, it has gained a reputation over the years that it will probably never be able to shake.

  5. wangbo Says:

    Claire, that’s pretty close to the way I’m thinking about the word “goose-stepping” at the moment.

  6. Claire Says:

    I was just pondering, of all the possibly offensive words in that article (rapacious, corrupt, and authoritarian to name just a few), I’m curious as to why Izh chose “goose-stepping” to get riled up about? Any insight?

  7. wangbo Says:

    Claire, although I hadn’t actually read the article at the time she expressed her rage to me (indeed, I only read it this afternoon when I finally got a chance to follow up the link she’d sent), that is precisely the question that set off this post. She clearly was pissed off about the word “goose-stepping”, but that was only part of it, so I was most interested to read the article and see what was what….

    …. and I just asked her, and her answer was that “goose-stepping” was right at the beginning and she perceived it as making fun of China, and the article proceeded to shit all over China, which pissed her off. She was (and still is) angry about the whole article, including “rapacious”, “corrupt” and “authoritarian”, but “goose-stepping” somehow burnt a particular impression.

    I’m not sure I agree with her perception of “goose-stepping” as “making fun of China”, although it clearly was used with negative intent, and as I said in the original post, I’m inclined to agree with her view of the Economist’s article.

  8. Claire Says:

    I agree with your and her opinions of the article; I didn’t mean to suggest that I don’t. Although I’m sure it doesn’t strike nearly the same chord for me as it does for her, I think it was out of line and could have been handled better.

    I hope my poking didn’t reopen the wound, I was merely curious :)

  9. wangbo Says:

    Ugh, sorry, should’ve phrased that reply better.

  10. Richard Says:

    Can’t add much to the discussion here, but in English, goose-stepping is definitely no longer a neutral descriptive term of a style of marching. The connotation of militarism and totalitarianism is unmistakable. See that Fawlty Towers episode for example…

  11. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    The wikipedia article on the subject gives no indication that the term can have a derogatory meaning, though tellingly the only examples it gives are of fascist and or communist countries.

    I just read the offending article myself and think that perhaps the lady doth protest too much. “Corrupt” and “authoritarian” are accurate descriptions of the Chinese government. “Rapacious” is a little more loaded, but still hardly inaccurate.

    There’s a lot of blather about China in the Western press but I think the Economist article was pretty fair as it goes.

  12. wangbo Says:

    Richard, I hadn’t thought of Fawlty Towers. Great example.

    Matt, although lzh may have read more into certain words than necessary, I’m inclined to agree with her. The statements in the article may be entirely accurate, but the author clearly set out with the intention of setting China in the worst possible light.

    Last I heard, India also has military parades on their equivalent of National Day, yet I’ve never seen or heard anybody go all Fu Manchu on India.

  13. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    I read the article again and am still not sure I agree. There were concessions of China’s more constructive role in dealing with Sudan and Myanmar as well as its help during the global slowdown, concessions that didn’t necessarily have to be made.

    I think the subtext of the article is that while China likes to flex its muscles with these martial parades it typically retreats behind the excuse that it’s a developing country and that nobody needs to worry much about it. It’s a mixed message and I think the Economist is correct to point it out as such.

  14. wangbo Says:

    Fair enough. I just found the tone a bit too strident.

  15. Fernando Chau Says:

    I think, it is already said, goosesteping describe a militaristic regime. In France, they have every year a military parade; even BBC or other media call it goosesteping.
    Looking from a different angle, the show was for domestic consumption and so one can think that military participation and other more ideological things are understandable.
    Yet, if something like the Olympic openning cerimony style would surely make a better party.

  16. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, Fernando, I’d forgotten France, too. Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “goose-stepping” used to describe the marching of French soldiers, and I would hardly describe France as a “militaristic regime”.

    I do think you’re largely right in the intended audience. Certainly my students have this week expressed the excitement and pride they felt in watching the parade. Still, I can’t help but feel that the military side of the parade was meant also for an external audience. Sure, the aim was to boost Chinese pride, but I’m inclined to think that the military aspect of the parade was also partly aimed at a foreign audience.

  17. Stephen Says:

    The term is definitely associated with fascism, Nazism, and hence evil. So much like the current and very local argument that “N***er” was once a lovely word to call someone, but has attained a derogatory meaning over time and use… Ahem, goose-stepping likewise has, over time and use, become associated with such said evils and so is used, and intentionally so (as with the afore mentioned N word), as derogatory with clear and definite intent.

  18. wangbo Says:

    Ah, yes, that never-ending very local argument….

    Fair point, Stephen, thanks.