Words matter. A lot. I think it is fair to suggest that without the ability to speak our species would not have gone from a few thousand poverty-stricken individuals scavenging the remains of lion kills in East Africa to seven billion people inhabiting just about every area of this planet. We can take a look at our closest relatives (chimpanzees, with whom we share about 98% of our DNA) to see what our lives would be like without language. Hyperbole? Almost certainly but a valid thinking point to begin with.
The greatest novel ever written – George Orwell’s 1984 – deals extensively with the importance of language. In the story, the leaders of the ruling party in Orwell’s dystopian future have invented an entirely new language called Newspeak that will make it impossible to oppose their power. Such is the corruption of the language that words start to mean exactly their opposite; the party’s slogan is…
“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”
The growth of social media and the power of the internet is creating the same problems Orwell wrote about in his novel. I would like to focus on two words/phrases – one favoured by the foaming right and the other by the pseudo-left. They are ‘political correctness’ and ‘racism.’
‘Political correctness’ is a meaningless term. As far as I can gather, it means that people get ‘offended’ (how I hate that ubiquitous term) because they get told they shouldn’t use certain words. Often the words these desperately offended right-wing foamers wish to employ are deeply unpleasant terms to describe black or Asian people, women or gays. Whilst I would never tell anyone what words they can and can’t use, all I would ask is, why would you want to use such phrases? Prejudice was rampant in the UK in my 1970s childhood and, to my shame, I used words that I would never dream of using now. What some people appear to do is deliberately use words that are deeply unpleasant and genuinely offensive to other people. What some might denounce as ‘political correctness’ might more accurately described as politeness. Again, I am not telling people not to use such words. However, you cannot claim to be ‘plain spoken’ and ‘tell it like it is’ but then act the martyr when other folk call you out on your use of language.
Racism is and has been a real problem in our society; anyone who claims otherwise is kidding themselves. However, I would suggest that racism is far less of a problem now that it was when I was a child. The use of racist language is frowned upon by most people, just as derogatory language about gays and women is frowned at by most people outside the Oval Office. Unfortunately, it seems a lot of people have a vested interest in sniffing out racism, even in places where it doesn’t exist. Thus in 2018, you can get called a racist for disliking a religion, voting to leave a economic/political organisation or raising the mildest of concerns about immigration. You can even be called a racist for saying you are not a racist – look up the insane term ‘white fragility’ if you don’t believe me.
Both right-wing campaigners against ‘political correctness’ and pseudo-leftist ‘racism’ hunters are trying to delegitmise and demonise their political opponents. Gone it seems are the days – if they ever existed – when people can disagree without being disagreeable. Heirs to Voltaire these people are not. Freedom of speech is the very cornerstone of democracy; indeed, to quote George Orwell again, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Freedom of speech is enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Article 10 states…
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers…”
Furthermore, in its case law the European Court of Human Rights has stated that Article 10…
“...protects not only the information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive but also those that offend, shock or disturb; such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness without which there is no democratic society. Opinions expressed in strong or exaggerated language are also protected.” [Emphasis added]
and in the case of politicians…
“In matters of public controversy or public interest, during political debate, in electoral campaigns… strong words and harsh criticism may be expected and will be tolerated to a greater degree by the Court.”
The words of the ECHR and court rulings based thereon are the absolute antithesis of the safe space, hair-trigger offence culture that dominates so much public discourse today. When people argue about politics they are entitled to express their views robustly and use “strong words and harsh criticism.” The world is not a pleasant place and no amount of whining by right-wing foamers or pseudo-leftist racism hunters will make it one. And at the end of the day, words are just that, words. However ‘offensive’ you may find a word it cannot harm you; if you are so precious that words damage you then that is your problem and your problem alone.