Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal, in an article otherwise dedicated to praise the Royal Wedding of His British Royal Highness Prince William and Kate Middleton, that as “an intern at the London Times in the early ’90s” he was “mystified by oblique references to riots in ‘Asian’ communities in the north of England”. He finally realized, “only after reading Hanif Kureishi’s novella My Son the Fanatic” ” that ’Asian’” meant ‘Muslim’, and in particular a second generation of British-born Muslims who had convinced themselves that they were living among the infidels”.

The power of denomination is a central device in the organization of what the critical school of sociology calls “symbolic power” and, according to this school, is at the heart of any potential “symbolic violence”, the violence that imposes on people words to describe their reality in order to deny them the resources of a legitimate language to defend their own claims.

Bret Stephens’ incidental remark showcases a remarkable illustration for the theory. It is undoubtedly part of the pretension to tell what the “true” meaning of the words is in order to favor a certain perception of reality. For the sake of illustration, let us follow what difference it makes to speak of “Asians” or of “Muslims”.

If you are an “Asian” your fight for recognition is understandable in a world where you have been transplanted. Understandable does not mean: “right”. It just means that it can be apprehended within the the standards of the community in which you live. A Western, democratic, community accepts diversity and admits that antagonisms in the public sphere—whether right or wrong—are also part of a thriving democratic culture. Even if the protest is illegal and even if it is legitimately repressed, it stays within the perimeter of what is workable in a democratic society. It  belongs to a type of conflicts that is not foreign to the local political and social establishment, when it deals with a discriminated, or simply poor and ill-adjusted to its context, minority.

Eventually you face two main options: if your fight is recognized as a right one by collective democratic standards, you will have contributed to a democratic progress; if deemed wrong you will go to jail. Talking about “Asians” means that the jury is still out.

Now, what does the shift from “Asian” to “fanatical Muslim” entail? Obviously, if you are a radical—fanatical—Muslim “convinced” that “you live among the infidels”, well, you are just an enemy, who—quite literally—has no right to express yourself in the context of a public order that you reject. You belong to another context not by the fact that you come from a foreign country but because your ideals are foreign to the local culture. Whether these ideals are regarded as foreign because they are radical or because they do not fit the long established Christian tradition which fed the local culture, they have no legitimate standing in the context in which you fight. In these conditions, even a democratic society should not lose time over your problems. You are  deemed to be doomed.

If I were keener on critical approaches, Stephens would offer me a golden opportunity to embrace critical theory. It would just take denouncing the symbolic violence on poor immigrant populations that struggle to make a decent living in a hostile Western World and are stigmatized as radical Muslims when they dare fight for their rights. I would add that it is well known that qualifying social unrest as “riots” is a frequent way to disqualify class struggle by picturing it as a violent meaningless disorder, the importance of which is just measured by the energy it takes to calm it down. And I would underscore the fact that the many extreme right parties in Europe and elsewhere have switched from denouncing “immigrants” to denouncing “Islam”. All this written in this epitome of capitalism that the Wall Street Journal is!

The problem with this critical perspective is, I believe, that it entertains the very same illusion it is supposed to challenge: that there is a “right” way of describing social reality. Against both Stephens and his friends, but also against many “critical” scholars, I do not think this is true. There is no “right way” to describe social phenomena, even if there are ones which can be described clearly as “wrong”, i.e. unscientific and falsified ones. Indeed, Stephens’ candor in confessing that his understanding is based on a fictional work is a spectacular admission that replacing “Asian” by “Muslim” is as fictional as saying “Asian” in the first place.

What both the London Times of the 90’s when they talk about “Asians” and Stephens in 2011 when he prefers “fanatical Muslim”, are doing is not describing a social reality, but avoiding to say: “mostly Pakistani” as Pakistani are both Asian and Muslim and constitute the bulk of the Muslim UK population (it is not the case in France where Muslims are mostly North African or in Germany where they are mostly Turkish) .

I do not mean that “mostly Pakistani” would be more true than “Asians” or “Radical Muslims”. It is too vague and, most importantly, it is discriminatory or even racist as it assimilates a certain type of immigration with violence. Stephens is as right as his former colleagues of the London Times when they avoids such a formulation or any formulation of this kind. He is also right in emphasizing the political dimension of religious radicalization that the qualification as “Asian” overlooks. But he is wrong when he thinks he has the only right version. In reality, substituting “Muslim” to “mostly Pakistani” is as politically correct as substituting “Asian” for the same expression. Only, it is the conservative political correctness, which plays on our contemporary fear of global radical Muslim terrorism rather. This conservative political correctness overlooks the fact that the UK in the 90’s was struggling with identity issues where—yes—Asians, including Pakistani and Indians, were playing an important role that cannot be reduced to tags such as “riots” or “radical Islam”.

Social scientists and journalists must be aware that any designation of any sort is a tricky game. All of our categories have to be permanently reviewed: truth is in nuances and contradictions. To say it differently: truth is a discourse, not an expression. The issue is how we “talk” about societies, not how we “call” people.

The fact that it is difficult to fit nuanced discourses into news articles is not a sufficient reason to stay blind as regards to our own language while pretending to be lucid with the one of the others.