War of the words: have we stopped making sense?

    11 August 2020

    What is happening to the English language? Why are we allowing our greatest gift to the world to be mangled out of all recognition?

    The number of boys dropping out of school or leaving without basic literacy skills is a national scandal but one that few in power dare speak about. Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has blamed a ‘lethal cocktail of inverted snobbery, racial victimhood and liberal guilt’ for the reluctance to help educate white boys in particular, whom he describes as today’s ‘educational left-behinds’: ‘I doubt that I’ll ever work out why the British appear untroubled that so many of their children emerge from over a decade of expensive, compulsory education with scarcely more in the way of literacy and numeracy than the average Neanderthal.’

    But children aren’t the only ones losing a grip on this most basic of life skills. A whole new set of buzzwords and phrases is spreading faster than Covid, polluting speech and taking up valuable space. Jargon, once the enemy of clear thinking, has established itself across many disciplines and much of the media. Impenetrable terminology, spawned by new courses like gender studies and critical race theory  in elite universities, has entered the mainstream, chewing up meaning and leaving anyone with a modicum of reason baffled and demoralised. Here’s an excerpt from the 2018′ Decolonising Sexuality Festival’ schedule as an example:

    Known for her theories of African-American female gender construction, Hortense Spillers’ thought is foundational in acknowledging the irreconcilability of black women’s experience with the hegemonic constructions of ‘gender’ and ‘women.’ Gail Lewis’ robust feminist, postcolonial, poststructuralist and psychoanalytic interests centre on the constitution of subjectivity as racialised and gendered.

    And another taken from a lecture on Sexual Politics and the Speculative held at the London School of Economics in December 2018.

    I further want to argue that attending to ambivalence as a continuous political and affective reality for those who want to intervene in gendered, raced and sexual meanings and structures in order to ameliorate their harms, shifts the nature of historical and contemporary inquiry.

    It remains unclear whether the use of such torturous terminology is a genuine attempt to explain complex ideas, a deliberate attempt to bamboozle the enemy, or merely pretentiousness masquerading as intellectual enquiry.

    In broader culture too, words are becoming increasingly opaque. In politics for instance, the ‘Conservative’ party no longer stands for the conservation of received values any more than the ‘Labour’ party stands for the rights of the ‘labouring’ classes. In a culture rife with moral relativism, language has become as fluid as the moveable identities it tries to define.

    Equally concerning is how quickly so many of us have adopted lazy forms of speech. We’ve grown accustomed to hearing cliché ridden sentences such as ‘So’, ‘essentially’, ‘going forward’  what we are doing is ‘framing’ ‘nuanced’ ‘narratives’ and ‘unpacking’ ‘problematic’ ‘ideas’ within the corporate world but now these ugly turns of phrase are peppering everyday speech. Most of us now occupy ‘spaces’ rather than homes or offices; anything difficult is described as ‘challenging’. The therapisation of language is also rife. We demand ‘platforms’ whenever we feel ‘vulnerable’ and ‘agency’ whenever we feel ‘dehumanised’.

    Some of the blame can be laid at those looking to police our use of language with ‘safe spaces’, ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘hate speech’. Theirs is a world where ‘silence is violence’ but so too are words. Those who disagree need to ‘own’ their ‘privilege’.  Dare to question the validity of ‘structural’ ‘oppressive’ ‘patriarchal’ ‘systems’ and you’ll be accused of ‘gas-lighting’ or ‘strongman’ tactics.

    Back in the real world anyone seeking spiritual succour will have to contend with yoga bores bleating about being ‘present’ and ‘blessed’ as they ‘honour’ your ‘personal space’ while being ‘mindful’ of their own ‘lived experience.’

    Underpinning all of this new phonetic flaccidity is the ubiquitous rising inflection; a whiny repost that appears to offer the listener an opportunity to question what’s being said while doing nothing of the sort. Those most guilty of upping their inflections are often the least tolerant of opposition; activists love the Aussie-rise because it allows them to make wild assertions without sounding aggressive or belligerent.

    If we neglect to teach basic language skills to children and instead bombard them with politicised rhetoric, we’ll leave them woefully ill equipped to function in the real world. They can only riff off language once they know the ground rules.

    Inverted snobbery and a lame attempt at ‘inclusivity’ means we are losing the subtle, understated beauty of English. Like all great inheritances, the spoken word needs preserving, not in aspic but in clarity of meaning.

    The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life by James Innes-Smith published Little, Brown November 2020