Language policing

I read tweets that can be described as language policing daily. They are either about admonishing people for saying certain things or, in the more benign way, they are suggesting ways in which one should talk. In this post, I want to comment on the idea of policing language.

Before I continue with a couple of my points, I would like to briefly discuss two texts which are critical of language policing. The first is by Patrick Corrigan, one of the best-known researchers of stigma (here is a link). Corrigan argues that language policing can have unintended consequences and he points to three of them. First, he points out that the focus on words doesn’t take care of the depth of stigma, bias or bigotry. Similarly, as I have been pointing out for years, you can use all the right words, and still be a bad clinician. Because clinical interaction is about considerably more than the words you utter (here is a link to a post about this).

Related to this is Corrigan’s second point. Just because you erase the words you don’t like, doesn’t mean you erase the attitudes, moreover, focusing on what not to say, creates conflict (I will come to this below). And, finally, language policing can be all that is achieved at the policy level.

The second text (a link here) is Debbie Cameron’s, a brilliant discourse analyst writing about language/discourse from a feminist perspective. She makes an association between language policing and creating shibboleths. Appropriateness becomes synonymous with being on the right side, of ‘really caring’, while not complying with language requirements means that you are bad, you make people suffer more.

When I defend my right to use the phrase ‘commit suicide’, I am accused of making the world a worse place, I pathologise suicide, I make it a sin. My arguments are never engaged with. Not only was I told on Twitter that the Samaritans’ research had found that using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ stops people from seeking help (yes, yes, I am the person who contributes to that), I was challenged with such a claim at an invited talk. When I said I had contacted the Samaritans and they’d denied the existence of such research, I was not believed. It seems reality doesn’t matter, as long as you don’t say the words that have been chosen as the wrong ones.

Now, let me make my main point. I think language policing is about power, claiming it, having it, and wielding it on the rest of us. It can be done in a number of ways.

First, it’s about who gets to decide how ‘we’ should speak. Academics? Activists? People with an experiential claim, e.g., people who lost a loved one to suicide or people who attempted to kill themselves? Time and again, people claiming to speak for suicidology, for groups of people, claim the power to tell others how to speak. For example, in a good study of perceptions of phrases referring to suicide (links and discussion of the limitations here), the authors show how complicated the matter is. And yet, they still make a recommendation as to how to speak. Why? How? What gives them the right to tell me how I should speak or write, especially, that their study shows there are no simple and easy answers!

Time and again, I hear people say their views are uniformly supported by others. Not only is it very unlikely, but it is also othering and excluding of those who disagree. Yet, for example, making a claim to represent people who are bereaved through suicide (as if they were all thinking alike) seems as easy as counting to three. I think such statements are designed to claim much power and social and symbolic capital. Who wouldn’t like to tell half a society how to speak?!

My second point is about the universality of language advice. What always strikes me about language-instruction tweets is that they are rarely cushioned in hedges (linguistic devices which introduce limits to what is described, such as ‘usually’, ‘sometimes’, ‘kind of’, in my opinion and the like). Much more often than not, such tweets introduce all-or-nothing rules of speaking. For example, a recent tweet talked about inappropriate language use, as if inappropriateness were something obvious, context-free.

In fact, it’s nothing of the sort. What’s inappropriate to say in one context, might be appropriate in another – e.g., so-called swear words are likely to be inappropriate at a job interview (or not), they might be appropriate during an act of romantic love in the bedroom (indeed, or not). Ad nauseam, language and linguistic communication are contextual and there are very, very few phrases that cannot be overturned in a particular context. To make the point again, phrases such as ‘I love you.’ can be expressions of hatred, just as ‘I hate you.’ can be an expression of affection and love. It just takes a particular context.

The simplicity of the instructions is only irritating. Say this, you’ll be fine, say that, all hell will break loose. Say this, it’s biased, say that, it’s not biased at all. Needless to say, the fact that language always offers a perspective, always, is never mentioned. But then, yes, it is this simplicity that bestows the authority and knowledge, and awe.

I don’t want to question that language policing is well meant; it probably is. But there is something pernicious about instructions which not only ignore the wealth of linguistic knowledge, but also claim the privilege to speak for others and instruct others, societies, in fact. I simply cannot understand how advice which is simplistic and based on false premises is only about caring for others. And how it’s not about being right at all cost.

And this is, alas, how I see language police. The bottom line is that those who tell me how to speak want to be right, and want to make sure that those who disagree, or are simply unsure, are wrong. And I simply reject this duality. I continue preferring to say that things are complicated and there are not easy and simply answers or directives.

But there is more. Speaking of language is easy (see Patrick Corrigan’s point earlier). As people are persuaded that ‘language matters’, that it is a priority, it has become one. And as ‘we’ focus on language that apparently matters very much, we do not focus on things that, in my view at least, matter more. We don’t focus on access, on funding, on relationships, on care, on jobs….Because we have language to worry about. And call me stupid, but I really don’t think that a word or two, or a bloody hundred, are important when someone about to kill themselves is told to go home and make an appointment in two weeks’ time or is told it’s their personal choice.

All these non-linguistic problems are hard, fighting for them is hard. Fighting for changing words is so much easier. And as more and more and more people are now saying ‘die by suicide’, you can claim victory. But does it really matter all that much?


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