Thursday, December 10, 2020

Accent Discrimination?

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has made a fortune from his "you might be a redneck" routines, said to have originated from other comedian's ridicule of his rurality while performing in Detroit. In one routine, he addresses the impact and import of accent, noting:
"People hear me talk, they automatically want to deduct a hundred I.Q. points. Because apparently the Southern accent is not the world's most intelligent sounding accent. You know, and to be honest, none of us would want to hear our brain surgeon say, 'Aw right, now what we're going to do is, saw the top of your head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can't find that dadburn clot.' It'd be like, 'No thanks, I'll just die, O.K.? [laughter]"

This returned to my memory recently when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published Why France may ban discrimination against accents. The article makes no mention of "rednecks," but includes refences to being "treated like a hick - amiable but fundamentally unserious" based upon accent. The similarity to Jeff Foxworthy's perspective and perception are notable. 

The BBC story focuses upon an interaction between a French politician and a "reporter from French regional TV." The story notes the reporter has "a strong southern twang." As does, perhaps, Mr. Foxworthy? The BBC notes that France has a history of regional accents and that there has been some propensity to make light of their dialect in various contexts. The contention is made that such an accent can be damaging to those who seek to make a living "in broadcasting or national politics or the higher end of academia and the civil service."

At the other end of the dialect spectrum, according to the BBC, are those who "conform to the norm." These adopt instead a "standard Paris bourgeois." About half of the country (37 million) is said to speak in the Paris manner, while about 30 million "speak with an accent." It notes that lessons are available to facilitate learning how to speak without regional distinctions; to speak in the Paris fashion.  

While Americans were busy celebrating Thanksgiving, the French National Assembly undertook consideration of a bill to outlaw "discriminat(ion) against an individual on the basis of accent."  The vote was reportedly overwhelming (98 to 3) in favor of the bill, according to The Local.

It reported on the passage of the bill, and noted that there was "animated debate" prior to the vote. The bill makes "accent discrimination - known as glottophobie in French" a form of "actionable discrimination, along with racism, sexism and discrimination against the disabled." The legislation proposes penalties including "three years' imprisonment and a fine of €45,000" (about $54,000).

One of the few to vote against the measure, Jean Lassalle, expressed his thoughts "in his strong southwest France accent." He insisted "I'm not asking for charity, I'm not demanding to be protected because I am who I am." 

The legal implications of such a law in the U.S. are intriguing. In the world of employment litigation, the prima facia case would seem to be something like: "there was a promotion and someone with a Michigan accent received it instead of me (with my California accent)," or something similar. The nuance of who in a chain of command spoke with what accent, how an applicant or employee spoke or was perceived to speak, might prove to be difficult factual inquiries. In short, enforcement might prove challenging in the worst of circumstances. 

Of course, perhaps easier if the decision maker were more blatant: "we can't give you this promotion, you sound like a hick." But, in reality, how often would such a statement be made? In some employment cases, data is mined regarding the volume of some group promoted across a statistical sample, such as "x% (insert group) employees were promoted to manager in this company." But that is accomplished because there is data on employee demographics, origin, gender perceptions, and race. Would such a law come with requirements of documenting perceptions of accent (of others) or identification of accent (our own perceptions of our personal vernacular)? 

It is an interesting idea playing out. Whether it becomes law in France remains to be seen. Whether proof will be difficult in such circumstances, should it pass, will be intriguing from the perspective of employment and beyond. Could glottophobie become a thing here?