THE BITER BIT - PC TERMINOLOGY DECONSTRUCTED
THE BITER BIT – POLITICALLY CORRECT LANGUAGED DECONSTRUCTED
Some people would defend the absurd, in the view of its critics, and jargony terminology which is creeping steadily into everyday conversation as simply a case of language changing over time. Now it does change over time, as we all know. This need not be harmful. Take, for example, the statement by someone that they need “a bit of me time.” This is just a different way of saying you want to be alone. There’s no reason to object to it other than simply because it is colloquial. But what should be borne in mind is that political correctness is not part of the natural evolution of language. Though this is not necessarily admitted to it has a specifically ideological purpose, one that is not, of course, unethical in itself; namely to discourage what is considered offensive or prejudiced towards vulnerable or disadvantaged groups. It is an artificial construct imposed upon the rest of society by a small group of ideologues and activists for that essentially political motive. So the question is, is it desirable?
Here we must be aware that political correctness covers a multitude of sins; in fact the preference for bizarre jargon now extends into areas where there are no cultural issues at all, though I have chosen to deal with such instances here because they are no less irritating.
Not all PC language may be silly and pointless. ”Ms” is a sensible way to address a woman, in speech or in writing, if you don’t know her marital status and wish to avoid embarrassment (having to write “Dear Miss/Mrs Smith” all the time is clumsy and tedious). “Gender” for “sex” avoids confusion as to whether it is the difference between men or women, or the activities which sometimes arise as a result of that difference, which is being talked about. Nonetheless there are many cases where, in throwing out the often racist or sexist vocabulary of old, PC has replaced it with language which itself is absurd and inappropriate, even discriminatory. Political correctness perpetrates its own nonsenses and injustices and this is reflected in the vocabulary it uses. That language is also aesthetically unappealing.
As a writer the cadence of language is important to me. There are such things as dumbing-up and dumbing-down. In our society we have both. PC-speak is a case of dumbing-up as it sounds formal, official, but is clumsy and bizarre; it is as much a pollution of language as the vulgar crudity of an uneducated yob, only very different in nature. The danger that as political correctionists, unchallenged, replace more and more of our vocabulary with terms of their own design it will become harder and harder to resist using it, and thus being made to look and feel silly oneself, without becoming ostracised and unable to communicate with the rest of society.
Politically correct expressions (such as “industrial relations issue”) can be used in jest, the intention probably being to be dry, sardonic (e.g. “you have an industrial relations issue,” the hero or heroine in a novel observes when the villain’s sidekicks rebel),as there they can do no harm. Humour involves highlighting what is absurd in any case, so when it is being employed the absurdity causes no problems. It is when the expressions are expected to be used in all seriousness that they are inappropriate.
That they don’t make as much sense as we would be led to believe is clear from a semantic analysis.
(1) “Native American”
There may actually be some sense in this term as “Indians” might cause confusion with immigrants to the US from the Indian subcontinent, of whom there have been quite a few recently. But it does draw a distinction between the original inhabitants of the US and later immigrants, as if the latter are merely foreigners, visitors, and is therefore divisive. And because of the way one thing leads to another in the human psyche, it’s only a step away from saying:
(2) “African American”
It is over 200 years since most black Americans left Africa – one reason why a noted “African American” was reported in the magazine The Week as saying he found the expression silly. So “black Americans” should be preferred, especially as no-one objects to someone being called a white American. Also, no-one calls me a “European Briton”, which means that the term is effectively discriminatory. The idea is that I do not need to be called such PC terms because as a white person I am not a victim; on the contrary, as a member of a race which has perpetrated cruelty and prejudice on a particularly large scale in the past – because for one reason or another it happened so much of the time to be geopolitically dominant - I am potentially likely to offend and therefore it is important I be influenced to use language which does not reflect an inappropriate attitude towards the black person, the actual victim. Whatever the evidence of history, this stereotypes both sides in a way which is insulting, patronising and also dangerous (by portraying white people as the villains of the peace it may make them vulnerable to retaliation in the future when they have ceased to be a demographic majority in the West and so can’t call the shots).
“Source” as a verb is actually in the Reader’s Digest dictionary, 1993, but its use seems to have rapidly increased in just the last couple of years (2009-11). In the past ”obtained” did just as well, though, so why not stick to it? To say “where are your raw materials obtained from” or “where do your raw materials come from” takes the same amount of time to say as “where are your raw materials sourced from”. Since the previously preferred term fitted the criteria both of accurate descriptiveness and of economy, why was it abandoned?
(4) “Life Skills”
What is meant by this is social skills, whatever kind they might be (and as we will see, they are varied). However it would seem to suggest life-saving, as when someone is rescued having got into difficulties while swimming. Something either literally describes what it is meant to, or is intended as a colloquialism; it can only be one or the other. Presumably we are now saying “life skills” instead of “social skills” because to recommend that someone takes a course in the latter suggests they are lacking in them, which can potentially be offensive. The alternative, however, is surely to refer to the particular skill when the subject of it comes up rather than lump all the skills together when it may be only one or two of them that need to be discussed. There is no reason why that ought not to do the job. Wikipedia defines life skills thus: “Life skills are a set of human skills acquired via teaching or direct experience that are used to handle problems and questions commonly encountered in daily human life. Life skills can vary from financial literacy, substance abuse prevention, to therapeutic techniques to deal with disabilities such as autism…skills for dealing with pregnancy and parenting…” So in other words, social skills. “Life skills” covers such a wide range of activities that it is virtually meaningless.
(5) Snow events and fertilisation event
This proliferation of “events” can also become ridiculous, if not misleading. “Snow event” is meant to indicate heavy snow to a degree that is disruptive (by trapping people in their homes, making roads unusable, etc) or dangerous to life. However it says nothing about what is actually happening because an “event” could equally be something joyous, something unpleasant, or something simply neutral in its effect on the sum total of human happiness. In fact, because the term “event” is associated in the average mind either with (1) something that simply happens, whatever it might be and however good or bad, or (2) some form of competition/display, it potentially makes something which might well be utterly catastrophic, leading to loss of life, sound rather like a ski-ing, toboganning or snowball-throwing contest. A “snow event” is simply an event involving snow; but there will be occasions when we need to go a bit further than that. Language is not meant to give an impression contrary to what it is intended to describe.
(6) “Issues” for “problems”
This, like the substitution of “sourced” for “obtained”, has become strikingly more common in the last two years. I find it similarly annoying. There are occasions, such as when one says “you’ve got problems” or “she’s got problems”, when it does indeed sound rude and “issues” may actually be the right thing to say. But used simply to describe something that is undesirable and needs to be put right, there is no reason why it should be considered offensive. Obviously to some extent “issue” and “problem” are interchangeable. Anything which is problematical to someone may also be an issue, and thus vice versa, but only where there is some disagreement about how to resolve it, or whether it is harmful in the first place, as in controversial political matters. If there is a problem with the office photocopier, that problem is not also an “issue” because provided people are aware it is not working properly all will be agreed, in the interests of the office’s smooth running, that the malfunction should be put right. There may be an issue over which firm to engage to carry out the work, if some candidates are considered unreliable or too expensive, but not over the malfunction itself, even if it was for some reason difficult to correct it speedily. When I seemed to be encountering problems with the computer in my church office and our Children and Families Worker asked me in all seriousness if there was an “issue” with it my jaw dropped in all but a strictly literal sense. With respect to her, across-the-board use of “issue” for “problem” results inevitably in situations which are somewhat farcical. A magazine for Doctor Who fans recently stated that there was an “issue” with the colourisation of a certain story (the prints of which are only available in black-and-white) from the classic series of Doctor Who, which must be achieved before it can be released on DVD. This rather gives an impression of the BBC taking the tapes to court for being difficult to digitalise, and perhaps being led to seek arbitration, the matter being debated in parliament and even, if things get that far, resulting in the sending of UN peacekeeping troops. I knew some people took the show very seriously, but…at the same time, Amazon advises customers what to do if they encounter an “issue” with the quality of another DVD. To encounter an issue suggests that one has become aware that some people disagree with each other about a certain matter, and is disconcerted by it. It’s not clear whether the issue affects you directly, but it’s very nice of you to be disconcerted – how much better to have peace and tranquillity. Furthermore, “issue” describes that very state of disagreement about a certain matter and not the matter itself, and so cannot be encountered except in a metaphorical sense (rather than the physical one which is intended).
In most cases, an “issue” is something where there is debate as to what is the right thing to do, a problem is where it is generally agreed that there is something wrong and the matter is merely technical or it is obvious who is in the right and who in the wrong. It is the failure to resolve the issue which is the problem and not the issue itself.
(7) “Human Resources”
“Human Resources” doesn’t actually make any sense. “Personnel” just means what it says, the people employed by a given organisation to run its affairs, and no more or less, just as “butcher” means someone who prepares and sells meat. If calling something “Human Resources” is meant to make it more touchy-feely and reassuring then the application is superfluous. Whatever your view of doctors, you aren’t any more or less trusting of them because they’re called that and not “Human Welfare Enablers”. The point being that you can be fair in your dealings with people without calling them by silly names. If human beings are a “resource”, what is that resource supposed to be used for? Making fertiliser?
Actually, in one respect “human resources” does make sense, because people are undoubtedly a resource in economic terms. But apart from the fact that the terminology it replaced is still perfectly adequate and shouldn’t have been changed, it has a literary, poetic, metaphorical ring to it which is absurd and out of place in an administrative environment where the requirement of language is that it should reflect functionality. This doesn’t mean that employers and employees should be soulless robots concerned only with efficiency, because a “Personnel” manager can be warm and likeable as an individual, and in today’s politically correct and user-friendly days you still get plenty of cold fishes who it’s hard to gel with.
(8) “Offender Manager”
This makes crime sound innocuous, which it isn’t. You “manage” a shop, but there is nothing criminal about running a business. Use of the term gives the impression that it is the same with committing crimes. It does not carry the sense of crime as something antisocial, damaging and often wicked in intent. There is of course nothing incompatible between objecting to this and making punishment serve a rehabilitatory function, which ought at least partly to be our aim.
(9) “Partner” (for boyfriend/girlfriend) The word “partner” is in common use to describe a business partner so it is likely confusion will be caused, which could be embarrassing. One of the chief purposes of language is to clarify, rather than confuse. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue saying “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” especially as it is well known, and for better or worse accepted within modern society, that boyfriends and girlfriends often cohabit in the long run.
(10) “Faith Group”
No reason why we shouldn’t go on saying “religion” unless “religion” is a dirty word!
An ideology (the concept “narrative” is intended to denote, replacing the previous definition) is a set of values which is intended to be applied to real life conditions. “Narrative” is generally taken to mean the plot of a fictional book. There is a dichotomy between the term and what it is intended to describe which renders it absurd. Indeed because of the sense it conveys “narrative” somehow has the effect of trivialising the matter under discussion, by confusing it with something that might be read purely for entertainment, important as entertainment is, rather than for education.
In official parlance, at any rate, this word has tended to supersede “gypsy”, because the latter is seen as having negative assocations which may lead to the persecution of those it is meant to describe. It has to be said that this is partly due to the often antisocial behaviour of “gypsies” themselves – dumping rubbish, stealing, thuggery – which is worth bearing in mind even though it doesn’t justify ill-treating them More positively, however, “gypsy” suggests something wild, romantic, mysterious, alluring, which, actually makes gypsies seem more attractive.
There may be a genuine cultural difference between “gypsies” and “travellers”, although I’m not sure what it is. The trouble is that to provide an alternative description to the former a word is being used which is already, in fact always has been, applied universally to describe a very common and fundamental human activity. Most people “travel” on a regular basis, even if it is only on foot or a short journey by car or bicycle to a nearby town. Does that mean they live a nomadic lifestyle in caravans and are a minority group which has been persecuted in the past by Hitler and others? A term best used to describe the universal is being used to describe the particular in a way which is inappropriate and therefore comes over as absurd.
Enabled to do what? Just saying “enabled” is insufficient. The verb is being divorced from its subject which goes against the basics of language. I was once informed by a computer, “Java Script must be enabled to read this document.” It would appear from this that something called Java Script is unable to read the document (not that Java Script can read the document, and for my benefit rather than its own, but I need to turn it on so that it can do so). Somehow I must do something which allows Java Script to read the document, but unhelpfully I am not told how.
Use of “Enabler” when describing someone’s job is also daft. Just say what they do (policeman, doctor, teacher, etc); most of the time you only need one or at least two words. In fact “Organiser” should be sufficient since (a) there is nothing objectionable about the term (why should there be?) and (b) it describes literally and succinctly, when combined with the word for what they are organising, what they actually do.
It’s worth mentioning here that “enable” in the PC idiom has given rise to the most hilarious example of ridiculous jargon ever encountered (at least it’s hard to imagine a better candidate). I was about to use the photocopier in Kingston-upon-Thames library a few years ago when my eye fell upon the instruction “please enable the external control device.” It takes roughly the same amount of time to say “please enable the external control device” as it does to say “to switch on press the green button”, so no savings in terms of time and verbiage are being made; therefore why not go for “to switch on press the green button”, especially as it sounds infinitely less silly?
(14) “Sex Worker”
This term is ambiguous as it could mean a sex therapist, or a nurse/social worker who works with prostitutes – for that actually is the image it creates. In any case, the term “worker” is perceived as meaning someone who performs some essential – in other words, legitimate - task for society which is generally accepted as ethical. It could be that prostitution is essential – it allows people who can’t form relationships easily, and might therefore commit rape out of frustration, to get their oats - but what sensible people realise is that if you admit to this too openly you encourage what is certainly not harmless, despite its benefits, and is sometimes practised for less excusable reasons than financial hardship - a loss of self-esteem and desire to assist men in degrading themselves. You therefore lower the moral tone of society. I have to say that I doubt if things improve where prostitution is legalised. It is still a degrading treatment of the human body as a commodity, hireable if not purchaseable, and in a particularly intimate sense; but if it was legal people would grow up thinking there was nothing harmful about it (if there was it wouldn’t be allowed, would it?). The present situation, in which prostitution is neither legal nor illegal, is unhelpful and confusing in many ways but there is no alternative to it.
If prostitution is not a good thing then we have to express that in the language we use to describe it. Speaking in a way which suggests it is no different from any other activity does not help towards tackling the social problem it represents. We have to give the impression that it is unsavoury. Leaving it to the conscience of the individual how far they are involved in it, and recognising that it may be a necessary evil, is not the same thing as sanitising it, because the latter is something we should not do.
(15) “Let you go”
Use of these words when it is desired to dismiss someone from their job has become alarmingly common over just the last few years. It is both bizarre and offensive. It is bizarre because in most cases, of course, the person does not want to go. They would much rather stay in the job, continuing to enjoy a degree of security and stability and benefiting from the salary which they earn. They don’t want to go through the inconvenience, and often stress, of looking for another – would you? As a proper description of the situation it is grossly inaccurate, describing the person’s intentions in a way which gives a false impression of it. Only when a person has requested to be allowed to resign from a post is it appropriate. The person may also have been dismissed unfairly and this, together with the unemployment, and therefore stress, which can result from dismissal makes the expression particularly inappropriate and insensitive. There is a misapprehension that callousness ceases to be callousness when it is dressed up in jargon and a smooth manner of speaking. Here it is so obviously hurtful and offensive to the feelings that you might as well have been deliberately rude! Because of the precedent it sets, and which may be followed whatever the circumstances, it is to be discouraged even when the person is incompetent and disruptive and ought to go.
(16) “Birth name”
This term is applied to both males and females and not just to those women who adhere to the traditional, if no longer obligatory, custom of adopting their husband’s surname on marriage. The term simply means one’s real name as opposed to one which someone may have adopted, for whatever reason, during the course of their life. And “real name”, as in the opposite of assumed name, is semantically quite adequate. Nor is it in some way inappropriate, as it is seen as quite legitimate and acceptable for someone to change their name by deed poll or to use a different one in a certain situation, as in authors giving themselves a pseudonym or actors a stage name. The latter is not quite so common nowadays, but no-one would seriously object if anybody did wish to do it. So why bother to say “birth name” instead of “real name?” If it ain’t broke, fixeth it not.
(17) “Life-changing” illness Normally when we describe something as life-changing we mean it in a positive sense, as in when it gives us a new career break and opens us opportunities to better ourselves. However this is grossly inappropriate if the illness is damaging in its effects, as most illnesses by definition are. Something like AIDS or cancer or motor neurone disease would be particularly damaging. An illness can have positive effects if, in coping with it, we learn how to bear adversity and so build strength of character, but this is not what the people who call it “life-changing” have in mind, unless they are in the business of personal development and counselling rather than just medicine, which is different.
(18) “Integrity Centre” for Benefits Office – presumably this refers only to the part of the BO which deals with assessment of claims to decide if a person is claiming fraudulently. It just isn’t necessary to call it an “Integrity Centre”; why shouldn’t “assessment centre” do? This would encapsulate the essence of what the department is for. Here it is the sheer pointlessness of the change in language which is the issue. The idea that it should be necessary reflects a peculiar way of thinking, and therefore if anyone entertains it what else are they capable of doing? If someone is already considered to be guilty of benefit fraud then they should come under a Benefit Fraud office (the suggestion that they are guilty of it - because that is what use of the word “guilty” implies, as otherwise it is meaningless – is deeply offensive unless it is actually true. And if it is not, then why not just say “Assessment Office”, because the purpose of the organisation is to decide whether the level of benefit someone gets is merited (not necessarily if they are defrauding, which isn’t quite the same issue). The point is that either “fraud” or “assessment” would describe the situation adequately, depending on its nature, so why say “integrity”? Bizarre…and it sounds silly. If there is a suggestion of fraud then someone’s integrity already is under question; the use of the word “fraud” includes the concept of integrity being at stake so to use the latter as a formal title is unnecessary. We don’t need to go into the question of whether the fraud denotes lack of integrity because it obviously does. “Integrity” is an important issue but it here it is already being dealt with so no change in terminology is called for. In a semantic sense “integrity” is here secondary to the concept of “fraud” and emphasises a moral/philosophical value which is irrelevant to the purely practical (and needing to be described in a practical way to suit its practical purpose) aspect of administering benefits (there is nothing morally wrong in something being purely practical in purpose). It just comes over as somewhat gimmicky, despite no doubt having a serious ethical purpose. Being slightly gimmicky in this way is acceptable in, say, the context of charities who depend a lot on advertising where a gimmicky approach has always been adopted and is in fact quite appropriate, even necessary. It is not acceptable in an official government organisation.
FINALLY - WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE ISSUE (SORRY, PROBLEM)
The only thing you can do is not to use excessively politically correct or jargony expressions yourself during a conversation, even when someone else is clearly doing so. This will be noticed and people will wonder why you are taking such a stand. You may not need to challenge them directly on their use of the expressions and say why you dislike it, but it will help enormously if you do. The more people do these things the more it will establish the idea in the public’s heads that the old way of saying things was quite adequate and the new way may not be an improvement on it, in fact quite the contrary.