My colleague, the New Statesman’s Deputy Editor Helen Lewis wrote an extremely compelling Tumblr piece this weekend on the worthy subject of perfection in language.
Let me start by saying, I loved Helen’s piece, I thought it was very worthwhile, very frank and honest. But I am also aware that there is a great deal of language policing going on nowadays, carried out by essentially good hearted people who will actively tell individuals the right or wrong thing to say But who are they to decide, what makes them a worthy jury, and do minorities actively request this language policing?
In a recent debate, the transgender activist and equality campaigner Paris Lees said that we must be careful of the language we use in respect of prejudice and that the language we use can indicate our prejudices. This is true, but it is also about your intentions in using that language that matter.
In her opening, Helen talked about explaining your beliefs to someone and getting them to care. She then said you’d have to walk out the front door to do so.
She then continued thus:
“But I can guarantee you that if I wrote that in a piece, I would get at least one comment “gently reminding” me that some people can’t walk, and some people can’t leave their houses. I’ve been ableist.
Now I have to say, in full on confessional mode, I did find this half funny. I am a person in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. But I can almost imagine the men of South Park forming a crippletron and screaming at Helen;
“YOU’VE BEEN ABLEIST AND WE’RE GONNA GET YOU”
That would be a complete overreaction. Looking at the facts, she’s Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, a publication with many diverse writers on its roster.
But that doesn’t mean that as Helen says there would be those who would give her those gentle or maybe not so gentle reminders.
The crux of why I found it personally funny though is this. I am a big believer in normalcy. Even though I cannot physically walk, I still use the phrase going for a walk. I’ve always used it. I was never brought up in a segregated way. It also makes me feel closer to the normalcy of society. Even though I am not physically putting one foot in front of the other, I am still participating in an act of kinetic movement. Woe betides anyone who tries to take my walking away!
Words like ableist too are neologisms which I would guess have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. That is to say they have grown into the English Language not grown up with it.
Then, the process of finding the “correct word” completely foxes people, so much so that it almost excludes them. One of my opening gambits to people when we first meet is “You can say what you like to me. Please don’t feel you have to walk on eggshells.” I am not a fan of endless mental googling for inoffensive words. I said half funny because of the next question that floated into my mind? Have we minorities thought that the majority may feel separated from us as a result?
You can almost smell the look of tangible relief on their face. This approach wins more friends than enemies. Of course there are people with disabilities who will note down every linguistic transgression with train spotter esque glee. Be assured though I am not one of them. Even walking on eggshells might be ableist! Oh heck! Imagine the Daily Mail Headlines! Disabled woman is ableist about herself shocker! Well, if that is so, so be it.
Helen posits the question of who decides whether language is bad or good. For me, I decide for myself, and leave others to chatter incessantly.
Another interesting point she raises is about the acronym TERF. Trans exclusionary radical feminist for those of you not tuned into Trans FM 101 and down wit da lingo. Also they are transphobic.
But even if trans women like myself have problems with radical feminist philosophy, essentially that trans women are men, and the inclusion of them in feminist spaces perpetuates patriarchy, is it right to codify them through language, and exclude them further? I cannot square that circle, I just cannot. I feel it makes us guilty of oppression and therefore of unvoiced hypocrisy.
Helen also deals with the word “tranny”.
Many of you will remember Donna Whitbread, the vivaciously beautiful, loud, and confident woman from Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer.
One of the first things she said to me was “I love being a tranny.” Tranny” was also the “cheese” when we took photographs.
Yet I also know that for some, the mere sight of the word “tranny” in an article would cause them to contact the Press Complaints Commission straightaway.
Laurie Penny was born a woman, and called a “cis privileged fucker” into the bargain. I really don’t think she can help the manner of her birth.
My message is therefore simple. There will always be disagreements in language and people who police the borders. But I say to them, police your own borders and I shall police mine. We must be careful language does not exclude and slam doors in people’s faces. I have saved the juiciest part until last. The main opposition for my walking came from others with disabilities. People would try to get me to use alternatives. They were punitive at best, going for a roll (something you eat) or going for a drive. But those didn’t gel with me. I wanted my walking. I want to speak, and write the same English language as everyone else. Not one shrouded in politically correct euphemism and mystery.
So set your own linguistic standards. Own them. Fight for them. But please do not expect universal agreement on them. As Helen says;
“There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it.”
How true indeed!