Dangerous lexicons

It's all very well having a tilt at the straw man that is political correctness, but in the world of work, language must be used with care for the everyone's sake.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The devil gets all the best tunes, but conservatives get all the best lines. In American politics, right-wingers have long realised that control of language is half the battle for control of ideas. 'Partial-birth abortion' and 'tax relief' are just a couple of their more successful inventions. In Britain the term 'nanny state' has been similarly successful.

But the greatest linguistic success of conservatives - in politics and business - is the re- invention of the term 'political correctness'. At a stroke, all attempts to improve the language, attitudes or behaviour of racist, sexist neanderthals can be swept together and brushed aside as 'political correctness gone mad'.

Everyone has their favourite example. Mine is the advice from the Teacher Training Agency to use the term 'thought shower' instead of brainstorm to avoid offending epileptics. For others, the replacement of the famous 'to boldly go where no man has gone before' with the less offensive 'to boldly go where no-one has gone before' for Star Trek: Next Generation is the best evidence that we've lost our marbles.

And if we ever run short, the British tabloid press can be relied on to keep finding councils banning wedding rings, schools banning crosses or companies banning Christmas, and holding up for public view the latest cultural atrocity from the feminist-lesbian-gay movement.

Political correctness was originally a term of the Russian Marxist-Leninists used to indicate statements in line with party orthodoxy. The beauty of its modern conservative coining, though, is that there is no single ideology of political correctness. You will search in vain for a Campaign for Political Correctness: but there are dozens against it.

'PC' is a right-wing straw man. But the underlying issue - of the way language influences thought - is vitally important, and nowhere more so than in businesses. Organisations are now the main principal arenas for the exercise, and abuse, of power. The lexicon of the office matters.

Current leadership theory places a lot of weight on the ability of leaders to be 'storytellers', to use words in ways that conjure up the right image in the minds of listening staff. The right analogy, the killer phrase or the exact metaphor bring a strategy to life.

In the same way, the language used to describe certain groups or individuals has a powerful influence on the organisation's collective consciousness.

If older people are comfortably referred to as 'wrinklies', the danger of institutional ageism is greater. This is not to say that discrimination automatically follows linguistic stereotyping: affectionately describing your own parents as wrinklies has no influence on your own hiring practices. Used in a company-wide speech by the CEO, however, the term has different implications.

What the opponents of PC forget or ignore is that words can become loaded in ways that can directly, if not deliberately, affect quality of life - and that the more powerful the person speaking, the greater the freight carried by the words.

This means, to make life more difficult, that the 'rules' are changing all the time. Few would now argue that words such as 'spastic', 'queer' or 'nigger' are acceptable from the lips of the able-bodied, straight and white. This is not because there is anything wrong with the words themselves, but they have been loaded with pejorative implications. 'Nigger' is a term directly linked to the Latin term niger, meaning black. But, of course, in American and British English, it no longer just means black. It means 'black and therefore inferior'. The way the word has been used has altered its meaning - which is what happens to all words, all the time.

A word's impact is related to the motivation of the person using it, so there are no hard and fast rules that can be applied at all times and in all places. Perhaps the greatest damage done by the myth of political correctness is to prevent some managers from talking about issues of racism, sexism or homophobia at all for fear of getting the language wrong. But any manager with a dose of sense and sensibility must know the broad outlines of what is currently acceptable language, and if their motivation for using it is clearly positive then there should be no problem.

A manager who says: 'I want us to do more to recruit black/gay employees' should not be shot simply because somebody else thinks 'people of colour' and 'members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual community' is the only acceptable terminology. It may be in the future, but it is not now. Businesses of all places should in any case be able to handle a degree of linguistic adaptation - after all, it is what many enter- prises excel at. If we can handle 're-engineering' and 'right-sizing', we can surely handle changing language with regard to our fellow workers.

Given the persistence of Jurassic workplace attitudes to gender, age and sexuality, it is vital that those on the side of the angels are not distracted by the conservatives into a debate about language. Most people in the categories usually referred to care less about labels than real opportunity. When words get in the way of progress, they have to be consigned - to borrow another Leninist phrase - to the dustbin of history. But let's not get lost in lexicography. Words speak, but actions are louder.

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