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Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Greatest Semantic Dispute On Earth

I am becoming increasingly annoyed at this kind of silliness.

Apparently, the solution to all our problems is to simply call things by different names.

Want to fight Islamic State? Call it 'Daesh'. Concerned about continuing discrimination against disabled people? Then make sure you call them 'differently able' and all will be well. It seems I can't go a day without at least five mass circulation publications insisting that I change what I call something, and vaguely implying that this will help in some way. You know the kind of thing I mean: "Why we shouldn't call it [insert controversial topic here] any more."

It's not like this is new. I remember a brief period in the '90s when I was solemnly informed by everybody that we were obliterating words like 'waitress', 'actress' and 'murderess', and that by doing so we would forever destroy the last dying basis for the patriarchal society. I call this kind of thinking 'bullshit'.

Don't get me wrong - words do matter. The thing is, though, they don't matter because they're words, they matter because of what they mean. Let's take the word 'spastic' as an example. I once had the privilege of working in a centre designed to help people with cerebral palsy get out and about and connect with the world. Part of my job was helping those of our clients who wished to create a Facebook account. My first client was a fifty something sex maniac, closet-genius and dalek lookalike. Let's call him Joe. Joe couldn't really use his hands or voice, so he took to Facebook like a duck to water. Almost literally, because in order to type he had to kind of peck at the keyboard with the pointer attached to his head. This pointer is kind of why he reminded me of a Dalek. I've never seen anyone more pleased than he was when I told him about this.

Anyway, Joe decided to fill in his profile information by writing a brief bio of himself. I clearly remember the first sentence. It was: "My name is Joe and I am a spastic". My first response was confusion, followed very quickly by gales of laughter as I noticed him giving me a rather beady-eyed look to see what kind of reaction he'd provoked. We then had one of our many very slow chats (Joe spoke by indicating letters on a pad with his pointer - it's a bit like interpreting a Ouija board message from a highly intelligent and amusing ghost). What was revealed was that as far as Joe was concerned, 'spastic' was a medical term, and one with which he had grown up. Then, of course, the frequent use of the word 'spastic' as a playground insult caused some troupe of policy wonks to declare that we should no longer use it. At all. Not in it's medical, perjorative, or any other sense.

While I understand the thinking behind this, it does strike me as vaguely reminiscent of 'Newspeak'. Orwell posits that the control of language is the control of thought (I'm sure someone else does too, but Wikipedia's taking ages to load), and as far as I can see, we're living in an era where language is more tightly controlled than at any other time. A very telling example of this is the fact that I have a fourteen year old student who manifests signs of deep discomfort every time he has to use the word 'Jew' when describing the character Shylock, who is, in fact, a Jew. So deeply has it been drummed into him that this generally innocuous word is somehow taboo that he can't comfortably use it in any sense.

I find this deeply worrying. We've always needed to be jealously protective of our few and precious freedoms, and it seems that freedom of thought and speech might be quietly slipping away under the radar. Don't get me wrong - I'm not pulling a Clint Eastwood here. I think much of what he's said recently is the result of long pent-up bad temper, and possibly age-induced psychosis. I'm not sure how much serious consideration his comments really merit. But I do think that when it comes to our approach to hate speech and bigotry, we've got it wrong. It's not words we should be addressing, but meaning.

We've created an environment where many people feel compelled to censor themselves, but we have utterly failed to address the roots of the underlying prejudices which make this necessary. This means that there are some people out there (you know who you are, Ms Hanson) from whom 'Person of Asian Descent' sounds worse than 'Gook' or 'Zipperhead'. And the annoying thing is that I can't call them out on it, because they've conformed to the new convention of the acceptable which stifles racist language, but ignores racist intent. And then there's the further consideration that if you silence someone for long enough, they'll eventually explode. Sometimes literally.

I think the solution, like so many other solutions, lies in us just growing the hell up. As fun as it is, we need to stop this childish game of he said/she said, stop being hysterical about names and get back to the core business of liberalism, which is defending and promoting the real-world equality of rights of every human regardless of shape, colour, creed or gender. If we take care of that, the semantic equality should just naturally follow.

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