Looking for lucidity

July/August 2006
Nick Cohen on the traps of language control

Among the many reasons why a candidate from the Left can’t win the Labour leadership election, let alone a general election, is that the Left can’t talk in a way that convinces outsiders that it is honest. The distortion of language in the past generation has become one of the main reasons for the success of the Right. All those creaking gags from P J O’Rourke that so tickled the tummies of Anglo-American conservatives in the 1990s, all the conservative denunciations of the bossiness of a political correctness that, in the words of George Bush senior in 1991, declares ‘certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits’, have succeeded beyond their authors’ wildest expectations.
‘Political correctness’ has become a synomyn for any abuse of power by capricious authority
‘Our lives are becoming ruled by a truly absurd degree of politically correct interference’, wrote Prince Charles in a series of impertinent and constitutionally improper letters to the Lord Chancellor. ‘The famous case of the avenue of chestnut trees in Norwich is just one of the most recent and most depressing.’
You may remember that Norwich Council felled the trees because it was frightened that boys throwing sticks for conkers would hurt themselves or passing cars. When I read his complaint, I thought the Prince of Wales was a bigger fool than I had taken him for – the PC way with trees is to hug them and greet them as friends, as he of all people ought to know. But when I made that point at a debate in Norwich, the audience would have none of it. Where once they would have called bureaucrats who wanted to stop boys playing conkers ‘little Hitlers’ or ‘jobsworths’ and imagined them to be conservatives, they now assumed that they were ‘politically correct’ liberals. All mean and stupid decisions enforced by the powerful on the powerless came, by definition, from the progressive middle class.
Trying to sort out what to think about political correctness is complicated by the fact that there is much good in it. When readers of and writers for the Daily Mail complain about ‘political correctness gone mad’, they are not standing up for plain English but regretting the achievements of the 1960s generation in combating misogyny, homophobia and racism. Their not so secret desire is to return to a society where they can abuse, say, blacks or gays with impunity. That they feel constrained is only to be welcomed as a sign of a better world in which you don’t judge people by their random characteristics – sex, skin colour or sexual orientation – but by their character.
But the argument people like me have made that political correctness is merely modern good manners doesn’t stand up, and the furious people of Norwich weren’t all wrong. Political correctness reflects arbitrary power as well as an extension of civilised standards. In a welfare state, the people the Left once regarded as its natural supporters are in regular contact with largely liberal-minded bureaucrats dispensing charity in one form or another. How these bureaucrats behave determines the electoral success of the Left. Just as the private sector has developed its idiom of management-speak, so the public sector has its own obscurantist dialogues. The crucial difference is that millions get to hear the language of the welfare state, but unless you are near the top of a corporation, you can spend a useful and happy life without once hearing about the latest fad from the Harvard Business School.
In theory, the modern welfare state couldn’t be more accommodating. Its preferred way of speaking is non-judgmental, and who among fallen humanity could object to not being judged? The notorious trouble is that it uses authoritarianism to enforce tolerance. A small example, which has nevertheless discredited the Left, is the constant shifting of the linguistic goal posts. In the 1950s, decent white Americans learned that it was wrong to say ‘niggers’ and they should use ‘coloureds’ instead. No sooner had they agreed than they were told in the 1960s that ‘coloureds’ was patronising and they should say ‘blacks’. They duly did, only to be told in the 1980s that they had got it wrong again; ‘blacks’ ignored ethnic heritage and the preferred usage was ‘African Americans’. Doubtless, that will change too, but on the course of the journey American liberalism lost many supporters who concluded that they were caught up in a linguistic racket.
A family I know with a severely disabled boy remembers when social workers and doctors stopped saying he was a ‘mongol’ and instead described him as suffering from ‘Down’s Syndrome’. Their motives were well-meaning but hopelessly naive. ‘Mong’ had become a playground insult and they believed they could remove the hurt by removing the name: change the world by changing language. Needless to add, ‘Down’s Syndrome’ is now a playground insult, and my friends who had always said their son suffered from mongolism didn’t feel grateful, but belittled. To their mind, a powerful and self-referential clique of professionals, who didn’t have to live with the boy and could walk away at any point, were using language games to make them, the real carers, appear as uncaring as the children who taunted ‘mongs’.
The remorseless workings of the same law of unintended consequences is described in poignant detail in the recent up-dating of Michael Young’s Family and Kinship in East London by Geoff Dench and Kate Gavron. Young, the author of the 1945 Labour manifesto, produced his study in 1957, and the optimism of the time inspired him. East Enders had survived the Blitz because, although they were poor and under attack from the Luftwaffe, they had a hidden strength: family networks dominated by matriarchs who provided moral and emotional steadfastness. Now was the time for their prize. The welfare state was going to allow them to join the rest of Britain as full and equal citizens.
Half a century on, Dench and Gavron retraced his steps, but found only bitterness among those old enough to remember the days of hope. East Enders couldn’t cope as they once did because the families which sustained them had evaporated and been replaced with isolated mothers who needed the state to help them bring up their children. The caring middle classes, with their suspicion of the ability of ordinary people to mind their own business, had replaced matriarchs with professionals working for a bureaucratic monopoly. Their language had followed the same trajectory as ‘the coloureds’. Their main concern had changed its name from ‘unmarried mothers’ to ‘one-parent families’ to ‘single mothers’, and it was next to impossible to keep up.
‘Mum has lost ground steadily and comprehensively’, said Young’s successors. ‘An army of social workers now organises her children’s and grand children’s lives, often around principles and child-rearing practices with which she profoundly disagrees … The welfare state which was designed to help her has in the event taken her children and her role away from her.’
The law of unintended consequences meant that the system assured the perpetuation of poverty. If you are a truly caring professional, you want to help those most in need.Top of the list are single mothers raising children without support. But giving them priority on council flat waiting lists provided a perverse incentive for single motherhood and its concomitant poverty. I feel that the task for the Left today is to find the words to describe that poverty and other injustices. If you wish to reform them, you will have no objection to lucidity. Obfuscation has historically been the vice of those who want to keep the social order as it is by preventing the public from seeing it clearly. A paradox of radicalism is that true radicals are linguistic conservatives because they have an urgent and overriding need to be understood.

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer.