Should we – sometimes – take a break from language-policing?


Firstly, for those who only read the first and last few lines of a piece, a big caveat to the headline above: we’ve achieved so much by improving equality in language and should continue to do so.

There should, without a doubt, be absolutely no hiding place for violent and hateful language.  

The single argument here is that, beyond this point, contributing to a debate by policing the language of another – such as implying discrimination or discriminatory thinking by the writer – can sometimes be counterproductive or worse.

The question is whether such language-policing should now, at times, be used with more caution and empathy.

Why? An increasing trend in the social media age of a person parachuting into a debate to condemn the choice of word or phrase by another (while contributing nothing else to the discussion) can often be uninvited, assumptive, distracting, alienating, involve ‘friendly fire’ against someone sharing the same views and be – ironically – discriminatory.

Many examples seen are little more than poor communication, a refusal to actually debate a subject and mask a flimsy grasp of an issue by those who wish to see themselves, or be seen, to be part of a cause in the easiest possible way.

To break these down:-

– Guardian-readers sword-fight: Policing language or a phrase used by a person in 2016 very often seems to involve ‘friendly fire’ between those who support the same causes. It is hard to see what this achieves in support of the shared issue at hand. ‘I care more than you’ is a strange approach. Why push others, including newcomers to a cause, away from the very issue you are both there to support?

– Assumption: Correcting someone for using, say, a recently out-dated term often goes on to assume the writer’s meaning behind the term as well as assume a great deal about the writer themselves and their views. Perhaps even their (unseen) contribution to the cause supported by the accuser. That’s a lot of assumption based on a few words. We should be debating the point at hand, not pulling straw-man points from assumptions. The former educates, the latter less so.

– Insulting: Implying discriminatory thinking by a person based on a few words means letting loose with what could be an extremely insulting accusation based on very little evidence.

– Counter-productive: It is also a near-certain way to close down debate with the writer.

– Uninvited: There are those who chose to pour over words with one another and decide that a term is now no longer fit for use. However, not every writer has signed-up to be part of that debate and will respond better to discussing the issues at hand.

– Exclusion: Those not across the very latest thinking and those perhaps clumsy in their choice of words, or less comfortable with writing, can be among those targeted by language-policing. Should we not debate the point they are making rather than the thoughts we think they are thinking?

– Distraction and contribution: A language-policing contribution can distract debate from the point at hand. What does it contribute to the understanding of the subject, compared to engaging in the debate, if it is roundly ignored?

– Authority: Just as we know very little about someone based on a short response in a debate, we know little about the authority of the language-policing poster, their actual knowledge or even contribution to their chosen cause. ‘Calling out’ someone making a reasoned argument to challenge a single word proves little about either.

In short, examples of modern language-policing seen have, at times, been little more than trolling with the fancy suit of good intentions. In these cases, it isn’t about the sharing of ideas, it builds no empathy or connection between the writer and the commenter, causes a tangent and is potentially exclusionary.

The removal of unacceptable language from our screens and conversations has achieved great things. And long may it continue. But is it now a weapon to be used with more care?

Finally, for those who only read the first and last few lines of a piece, a big caveat to the headline above: we’ve achieved so much by improving equality in language and should continue to do so.

There should, without a doubt, be absolutely no hiding place for violent and hateful language.  

The single argument here is that, beyond this point, contributing to a debate by policing the language of another – such as implying discrimination or discriminatory thinking by the writer – can sometimes be counterproductive. The question is whether it should now, at times, be used with more caution and empathy.

We’ve come a long way. Let’s listen more and assume less in 2016.

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