This linguistic engineering invades our lives and loves

Officialdom’s frenetic replacement of words like son and wife with words like ‘carer’ and ‘partner’ diminishes our identities.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

I have always been fascinated by the language we use to express our view of everyday life. But it wasn’t until the death of my mother three years ago that I realised how words could be used to diminish our identity and pressure us to adopt new values.

As soon as I heard that my mother had a stroke, I went to see her at our local hospital in Kent, England. On arrival, I introduced myself to the nurse with the words, ‘I’m Frank Furedi, I’m Clara’s son’. The woman looked up at me and said, ‘You mean you’re her carer’. ‘No, her son’, I responded. But she was insistent: ‘No, you are her carer.’

Later, one hospital administrator explained to me that they used the word carer because it included all; apparently not every patient has a close relative to look after them.

In Australia, the Department of Health and Ageing defines everyone who provides help to an ill or frail person as a carer. On its website it notes that ‘many carers don’t consider themselves to be carers – they see themselves as just family members’. Outwardly, this is a simple and uncontroversial statement of fact. But when you examine it closer, it offers a chilling reminder of who defines your identity. You may think you are family but, according to this administrative formula, you are ‘carers’.

The word carer may be inclusive, but if a special connection between mother and son is transformed into a bureaucratic typology, then something very important has been lost. The relationship between patients and their family, friends and paid help all involve care, but they convey fundamentally different meanings to the people concerned.

This linguistic engineering, this tendency to redefine human relations through a vocabulary that corrodes their special, unique and intimate qualities, is often promoted as a way of making all of us feel included. The first time I felt ambushed by linguistic policing was in the 1990s, when I read a report on how to deal with child abuse in a religious setting. The author, Helen Armstrong, argued that the church should respond by changing its traditional language. Why? Because ‘religious language often depends on a positive view of the value and trust placed in fathers, parents and family’ and it therefore may offend victims of abuse. The report warned against the use of a language that ‘represents God as father or as protector’ and said we should rethink ‘the range of “family” language used in religious thinking’.

The implication of Armstrong’s arguments was that the positive valuation of the family discriminated against victims of abuse, and therefore a new language should be made mandatory. If the celebration of the family is seen as troubling to those who have had negative experiences with their parents, then what intimate relationship can be unashamedly avowed these days? Certainly not that of husband and wife. As the Flinders University’s guide to using inclusive language explains: ‘Language that reinforces the assumption that all personal relationships are exclusively heterosexual denies the lived realities of same-sex couples.’ Accordingly, it advises using the term partner instead of wife or husband.

Like carer, the term partner has the advantage of homogenising every relationship, eroding their distinctions and instead making them all conform to an inoffensive generic formula. Insisting that I was my mum’s son was proof of my emotional illiteracy, apparently. But to refuse to be called partner and actually to embrace discriminatory appellation such as ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ – that is a marker of gross insensitivity, we are told. Better that you call your wife a spouse. And it is now official. Those applying for a visa to migrate to Australia are told by www.australia-migration.com that ‘if you are married, then you apply for the spouse visa’. It helpfully informs applicants that spouse is ‘the Australian husband or wife’.

Thankfully, you can still acknowledge that you are married. What is at issue is who you are married to. Numerous advocates of same-sex marriage argue that the association of marriage between a husband and wife is an expression of discriminatory prejudice. So a few years ago a submission by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Resource Centre to the inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 insisted that references to wife and husband should be removed from section 45(2) of the act. The submission also took exception to the ‘gendered’ term ‘man and woman’ used in marriage and opted for the term ‘union of two people’.

In Canada, where same-sex marriage was legalised in 2005, terms like husband and wife have already been removed from much official documentation. A similar approach is proposed for Britain in the Lib-Con government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, which implies, in Brendan O’Neill’s words, that ‘bureaucrats have the right to define our relationships, and by extension to govern them’.

Meanwhile in Sweden, campaigners are urging the authorities to introduce ‘gender-neutral’ language. They want to do away with any linguistic expression of difference between the sexes (such as the use of apparently discriminatory words like ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘boy’ and ‘girl’) in favour of having everyone speak in a fully PC, new and neutral fashion.

Whatever you think of a world in which sons are called carers, lovers are described as partners, husbands and wives are reinvented as spouses or just ‘two people’, and no one says ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, you should at least acknowledge that it is a very different place to one where people cultivate their own identities and traditions to determine who they really are.

It is important to understand that these new administratively sanctioned terms are not simply different words that express the same old identities or relationships. No, when a son is transformed into a carer, then the defining features of his relationship to his mother become obscured, maybe even lost. When religious organisations are told to use a language that treats the family as no big deal, then they cease to serve as institutions that can give spiritual meaning to their members. When marriage is reinterpreted as merely the union of two people, or a partnership of spouses, then the identity of a husband and wife is steadily eroded and loses its deep-rooted symbolic significance. Linguistic engineering impacts in a very real and very negative way on how we conceive of ourselves and how we think about our most intimate bonds.

The words we use really, really matter. They shape our view of ourselves and of our fellow citizens. In an open, tolerant society, people should possess the freedom to choose how they define themselves and others.

Unfortunately, today there are powerful cultural forces that believe they have the moral authority to decide what words the rest of us can use to describe ourselves, our loved ones and our relationships. Language is a far too important an area of human life to leave to the administrators and experts. We need the courage of our convictions to use the words that best express what we are about.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. A version of this article was first published in the Australian on 14 April 2012.

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