We should all use language carefully. That is an obligation on the literate. But carefully doesn’t mean fearfully. There is a danger that concern about insensitive use of language can be cynically used to muddy reasonable debate about political issues, and close down criticism. The Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, David Ward, has been under pressure and finally apologised for saying at a Holocaust Day ceremony:
I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ward failed to specify that the Jews he was talking about are those who agree with destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, building Israeli settlements on much-reduced Palestinian land, and with Israel retaliating incommensurately against Palestinian provocations, rather than considering and dealing with the reasons for them. Ward’s statement doesn’t seem to me to refer to me or anyone else who is Jewish and does not support Israeli policies in Palestine. He was wrong; he shouldn’t have conflated ‘the Jews’ with ‘Israel and its supporters’ – or, to put it another way, me with Netanyahu. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a legitimate (if naive) point, that the memory of what the Jews went through ought to give Israeli politicians pause for thought before subjecting other groups to persecution. As a Jew I’ve thought so with great sadness myself, while understanding that the argument about Israel must be a political one.
The furore over Ward’s choice of words is part of a wider argument about politics and language. Members of less powerful sociopolitical groups – people who are disabled, transgender, black, female, poor, abused or mentally ill – are also choosing to take language as a ground of politics, on the assumption that some words when spoken by people outside those groups are necessarily linked to underlying attitudes. People with real grievances are pouncing on language as if getting the words right will correct the attitudes that may or may not be there.
Discussions about feminism or mental illness are too important to be deflected by factions within vital pressure groups hijacking the debate, by complaining about the casual, sometimes lazy and often metaphorical use of references to the transgender and mentally ill communities. When language is policed, words and phrases are invented or reassigned that become a shorthand, and sometimes a workaround, for a more considerable and complex discussion. ‘Abuse’ wasn’t always the word it is today, a coverall. Instead we needed all manner of ways to describe and specify how the powerful afflicted the weak or vulnerable, physically, psychologically and politically. ‘Abuse’ smooths too many behaviours together as if they were all one thing. Taking too many or illegal drugs and sexually assaulting children really ought to be clearly distinguished from each other. And the word itself becomes anonymised.
People who do not belong to certain groups are asked to defer in their use of certain words to those who do (the practice is known in some quarters as ‘privilege-checking’). Words and phrases are ring-fenced in order to strip them of their ‘stereotypical’ and ‘clichéd’ implications. Recently the use of such terms as ‘mental’ or ‘Brazilian transsexuals’ was said to feed into a stereotype. Of course it does: language is a work in progress and an accumulation of conscious and unconscious usage. It’s not surprising that metaphors and analogies tend towards stereotypes; clichés are ways of using language that have proved useful over time. The words we use every day have developed their various meanings over centuries, and often by making leaps as well as obvious connections. The best writers play with and use stereotypes and clichés to renew thought, not to shut it down.
We should of course think carefully about what we say, but we should also be very careful about proscribing what people can say. We might allow them to explain themselves before we demand an apology, and allow ourselves to know when people are intentionally using language pejoratively. It’s usually pretty clear. The man behaving alarmingly in my local chemist who stopped to tell me ‘I’m not drunk, I’m mental’ was explaining himself to me. My acceptance of his language was based not only on the fact that he was clearly mentally ill and therefore ‘entitled’ to use the term, but also on the understanding we shared about the word’s general, stereotypical use. He was using it in both ways. As someone who has in my time been sectioned and hospitalised for depression, I wouldn’t want to strip the word ‘mental’ of its use as a general description for things that are incoherent, dangerous, exhilarating or thrilling. Nor, as a Jew, do I mind very much if David Ward uses the word ‘Jew’ when he means ‘right-wing Israeli’. I am much more interested in what he was trying to articulate, and in preventing those who should be listening to what he has to say from shutting down the discourse.