Language, it is not a particularly original insight to make, is both one of humanity’s greatest achievements and one of its greatest weapons, and rarely in history have we seen it used more for the second of those than the first. Spluttering headlines about how “YOU… [insert alleged scandal here]” or how “THEY [insert apparent rip-off there]” scream at us from every newsagent, supermarket and even airport gates. It’s tediously inescapable. We live in an era where, at least as far as traditional print media goes, we are rarely informed about the news so much as we are informed of other people’s opinions about the news. And that’s quite a significant deficit.
No longer are we being given facts, and invited to draw conclusions from them, but instead are being given opinions and asked which one to side with – receiving information about what’s going on in the world has become more like supporting a football team than it has about becoming properly educated so as to make an informed decision (say… who to vote for, to take one not-entirely-arbitrary example). Daily Express 0 – 1 The Independent (feel free insert your own tribal example here).
Yet of course it’s not just about politics. How often have we heard someone described as a “so-called expert” when a columnist or editor wants to disagree with their stance? It’s a sneering, dismissive phrase that immediately undermines whatever point is being debated – climate change is a good one if you want to go digging for “so-called expert” discoveries. This apparently-innocuous phrase manages to suggest that the person who’s spent years or decades of their life studying, understanding and qualifying in something somehow has less authority on a subject than a newspaper writer who’s dashed off a quick, highly prejudicial column in fifteen minutes that disagrees with the principal of global warming just because they can’t be arsed to separate their glass bottles come recycling day. It’s deeply frustrating, but it’s also something that seems to go regularly unchallenged, one of those phrases that’s seeped into the English language like so much gunk dripping from a broken pipe. It’s a hugely damaging phrase for such an innocent-looking collection of three words (and a hyphen. The hyphen doesn’t get off scot-free either). Or – and here comes the Big One – “political correctness”. There’s a phrase that can do some damage. If something is to be dismissed, stick the phrase “political correctness” in front of it and ta-da! It’s worthless! See also it’s close cousin “woke”. Though really it’s great when someone uses the word “woke” because it means you can pretty much ignore anything else they’re going to say.
But it doesn’t have to be so. Obviously the key to turning the tide of how language is used – reversing its polarity, if you will – is awareness. Being aware of what it is that’s being projected at us (never to us, mind, this is an active act, not a passive one) is one step, but there are others. That “political correctness” phrase? It’s only ever presented as a negative, but why? In reality it’s almost always a positive thing, in fact – of course sometimes things can go too far, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Political correctness means secretaries don’t have to stand for their bosses unwanted perving over them, gay men can walk down the streets without getting “faggot” screamed at them (or worse), non-white minorities in the UK can be treated fairly and equally. How can those possibly be bad things?
Then there’s the German comedian Henning When as another relevant case. A German comedian? Gasp! But that goes against everything we expect! Etc. etc. But yes, a German comedian. How about that? Yet just using those words, and in a positive context rather than an automatically-dismissive one, does indeed change the polarity of the language flow. It takes a negative and turns it into a positive. How many people amongst the Daily Mail set would read about a German comedian, make a couple of dreary tee-hee jokes about “don’t mention the war” and move on without giving it a second thought? But the fact that When has managed not only to become the self-styled “German comedy ambassador to the UK” but make a successful career out of it goes to show how this can be done. If you don’t like the story you’re being told, tell a different one. Reverse the polarity. Other examples abound, once you start looking for them in this context. Nadiya Hussain was able to leverage winning Bake-Off into a hugely successful (and deserved) career, and it’s the very fact that she isn’t just another bland white face gazing out from the front of a newspaper that makes her career both unlikely but also worthwhile. What could have smacked of tokenism – and, let’s be honest, likely started out that way – has instead become something genuinely inspirational. The fact that she’s a Muslim in a time we’re taught to fear Muslims or equate them with atrocities ought to have sunk her career prospects – in fact it’s done quite the reverse. Or dear old Stephen Fry, beloved entertainer, national treasure, and massively and unapologetically out gay man. Even twenty years ago that could have damaged his career beyond all repair. Not any more. Feel free to pick your own examples and more and more of them arrive and take their place in the cultural landscape.
And so on. I’m not going to list out every example here, but the point stands. Language, and what it propagates, is important, and we need to be aware of how language is wielded if we are to be in a position to defend ourselves from those who would use it and its implications to attack us. I started this article by referring to language as a “weapon” but even swords can be turned into ploughshares. Language is a beautiful thing – yes, even German – and to see it so often debased in current times is heart-breaking. It’s time to reverse that polarity, to reclaim language as something that does more good than harm, rather than more harm than good. So the next time you see a newspaper headline blaring some indistinct nothing at you, remember – if you don’t like the story that’s being told to you, tell another.
Tell a better one.