What matters and what doesn’t

One of the daily features of my Twitter timeline are tweets telling people how to speak. I regularly object to such policing. Not only, in my view, is it pointless, but, more importantly, it is only about the tweeter exercising (and consolidating) their power to tell people what to do. I recently wrote about (link here) the use of ‘die’ in palliative care, today I want to go back to the ‘c-phrase’. Here is another post about language policing.

It all started with this tweet:

As ever, it is about the phrase ‘commit suicide’, which, according to Dr Ian Dawe, is not ‘compassionate language’.

I must admit that I have no idea what ‘compassionate language’ might be. I actually think it is people who are compassionate, not language. And compassionate people can use the same linguistic resources (vocabulary, grammar) as those who are not compassionate. And I sometimes wonder whether it is so diabolically difficult to understand that there is none and there cannot be any simple link between words and compassion, empathy, love, hatred, or whatever else you can think of.

To repeat, ad nauseam. Language and communication are contextual. To simply say that one must never say something (or always say something) is utter nonsense. The same word/phrase can mean different things in different contexts and there are very, very few phrases (if any at all) that cannot be overturned in a particular situation. 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.

It’s worth adding that communication is not only about choosing the ‘right’ word. It is also about choosing to speak in the first place. Years ago, I sat on an interview panel which interviewed an experienced psychologist working with patients at the terminal stages of their cancer. I asked her what she does with them. She looked at me with some surprise, and said something like:

What can I possibly do? I just sit with them.

I thought it was a brilliant answer. It’s all about compassion, empathy, care, and it’s nothing to do with using this or that word or phrase.

It really irritates me when Dr Dawe says:

‘commit suicide’ is definitely not what we want to be saying these days’.

It irritates me for two reasons. First, because I object to the pronoun ‘we’ and wish the medic spoke for himself only. Who is ‘we’? Clinicians? Population? Let me put it differently: what right do ‘we’ have to tell people how to speak? Especially, how to speak about very difficult, dramatic, extremely painful events. For some, ‘commit suicide’ is precisely what renders the drama. Indeed, people say ‘commit suicide’:


Do they not matter? Are they all just wrong? Do ‘we’ discipline them? The tweet above is about life as we know it, accepting and understanding it. And not shoehorning your language views on it.

The second reason why I’m irritated by Dr Dawe’s words is the use of ‘want’. I find it extraordinary that he takes upon himself to tell me what I want or, perhaps, should want. In contrast, I think a shrink should refrain from telling anyone what they want. All that is offered as universal, all-or-nothing advice, the advice to use ‘compassionate language’. There are no hedges, qualifications – you just must not even want to use the ‘c-phrase’. Needless to say, again, and again, such advice has nothing to do with how language works.

I’m also too tired to discuss the simplistic argument that ‘commit’ means immoral and some such. Obviously, mistakes that you can commit are also immoral, as are acts of bravery which you can also commit. Let’s get some grip here, please.

Yet, there is another aspect of language policing that always bewilders me. Those who pontificate about ‘commit suicide’ hardly ever worry about the rest of the conversation. How do you speak to someone who is on the rooftop ready to jump? How do you speak to a parent whose child has just committed suicide. How do you speak to a child who tells you they don’t want to live? Well, somewhat surprisingly, the language police never offer advice on this. You never learn how to communicate, you never learn how to hold someone’s hand.

Somehow people got persuaded that ‘language matters’. The #languagematters hashtag is continuously populated by tweets telling the world what words/phrases must never ever be used and what words/phrases are the wonder-of-wonders replacements for them. You can be forgiven for thinking that world peace will be achieved through such replacements, while people will live in eternal happiness.

Alas, as ‘we’ focus on language, which 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, even on how to talk to someone who’s right at the edge. 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 language police can claim many victories. More and more and more people now say ‘die by suicide’ and think that this is the right way. They also think that ‘commit suicide’ is  very bad. On my part,  I continue to think that it doesn’t matter all that much.


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