The incivility of civic language

The incivility of civic language

If localism’s aspiration is to ensure local citizens have a voice, then its advocates may need to learn a new language to hear what the demos is saying. Most people in Britain don’t speak public sector jargonese and the demand that the masses learn it by rote (or shut up) confirms the idea of a nation split in two, partly geographically and certainly in terms of values.

A divided nation has very much informed political debate since the EU referendum result last June. Indeed, after the Brexit vote, many of my Remain voting peers empathised with Laurie Penny’s New Statesman article, ‘I want my country back’. Penny confessed: “This morning, I woke up in a country I do not recognise.”

Rather than drawing the lesson that maybe those at the heart of politics and the media may need to leave their echo chamber and listen more, many remain stuck in a feedback loop, tone deaf to huge swathes of the electorate. Penny assumed, and it’s been a prejudice presented by many since, that “the frightened, parochial lizard-brain of Britain voted out, out, out”, that leave voters represented “crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia”. Is it any wonder that recent polling has got it so wrong? Shy voters didn’t dare voice their views for fear of being dubbed as ‘parochial’ and ‘bigots’, effectively silenced or ignored.

If Penny et al don’t feel at home in this country, conversely 62 per cent of Britons (many of whom undoubtedly voted for Brexit) say Britain “sometimes feels like a foreign country”. This is too often taken as anti-foreigner prejudice. But more likely it’s because those in authority are speaking at them in a foreign language. I don’t mean Polish or Punjabi. I mean PC-speak, with its opaque codes that connote whether you are ‘on message’ that insidiously decide whether you are ‘our kind of people’ or one of those, racist lizard-brained oiks.

Look at the new diversity language that is now being commandeered by many public-sector bosses. The British Medical Association recently sent all its employees a 12-page booklet, A Guide to Effective Communication: Inclusive Language in the Workplace. This tells staff how to change their language to suit “an increasingly diverse society”, for example replacing the term “manpower” with “staff, workforce, personnel, workers”. Ludicrously, staff should no longer refer to pregnant women as ‘expectant mothers’ but as ‘pregnant people’. In April, The Times reported that UK universities are forcing students to conform to new codes restricting the use of gendered language. The University of Hull warns students that “failure to use gender-sensitive language will impact your mark”; common terms such as ‘mankind’, ‘forefathers’ and ‘manpower’ should be replaced by ‘humankind’, ‘ancestors’ and ‘human resources’.

Another layer of complexity is the demand for non-binary, gender-neutral pronouns and honorifics like “they”, “xe”, “ze” and “Mx”. I was recently sent a code of conduct warning me of the cost of misgendering: “It is very important to note that any attempts to undermine pronoun introductions will not be tolerated.” [My emphasis] I immediately became tongue-tied. Can you imagine then what it feels like to the uninitiated? The problem for most people is that they are not ‘educated’ in these linguistic niceties. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean educated as in qualifications. I mean trained in the cultural literacy now required to survive Modern Britain without failing the language test and being castigated as transphobic or xxxphobic etc. for using the wrong words.

There has been much discussion about the educational levels of those who voted Brexit, with a distasteful snobbery lurking beneath the boast that Remainers had the best-educated on their side. However, history has shown us you don’t need A-levels or a degree to be smart, rational, politically shrewd, brave or forward-thinking. Freedom fighters, from the sans-culottes to the founders of trade unionism — whose struggles created our modern, liberal Europe — were often uneducated, even illiterate.

But there is one educational advantage that does matter: having access to the rules governing new ways of speaking, so often inculcated in the environs of modern universities. In David Goodhart’s important new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, he describes the gulf between the metropolitan graduate tribe he calls Anywheres and the Brexitland tribe Somewheres. And here geography and educational divisions are a factor. The referendum results show that outside London and Scotland, the highest-voting Remain areas were either “home to a university or have very high entry rate to university”, while most of the highest-voting Leave areas not only don’t have a university but are geographically remote from HE institutions.

But lest anyone concludes that those influenced by universities are enlightened free thinkers, increasingly today’s campuses are ideologically insular places that are hostile to freedom of speech and intolerant of dissent (see my recent book, I Find That Offensive!). The opaque world of today’s student politics means, among other things, that: the wrong type of feminists, such as Germaine Greer, can be no-platformed; speech is cordoned off in safe spaces; trigger warnings are issued for great works of literature in case their contents cause emotional distress.

We might mock tales from university life such as dubbing Mexican-themed parties involving sombreros as racist or the renaming of yoga as ‘mindful stretching’ because it’s been appropriated from cultures that “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy”. But while such absurdities may seem far removed from the everyday life of millions, we should not fool ourselves that such censorious micromanaging of speech is confined to the ivory towers. It’s a mistake to underestimate the key role that colleges play in shaping the worldview of the metropolitan elites who go on to dominate the world of politics, media and work.

University life initiates almost half of tomorrow’s opinion formers into the rhetoric of identity and inclusivity, into the rules about which combination of words can get you in trouble, into the parameters of what is considered offensive. It is this ever-growing army of graduates, well-versed in the acceptable discourse, whose life experiences are shaped by a culture that presumes that ‘dangerous’ words should be policed, who go forward to populate local government, often members of a new professional class of expert, trained to detect offensive speech and re-educate the public mind, on the way to leadership of so many public-sector organisations.

Look at how the Equalities Act 2010 has been used to wage a full-scale culture war against a variety of workforces deemed in any way insensitive to those possessing “protected characteristics”, and usually assumed to be so because they don’t use the correct lingo. One of its fashionable targets – and one of the most invasive interventions by an army of language cops – has been the disparaging of banter, where “mate speech” is demonised as ‘hate speech’.

For example, the LGA’s recently launched report, An Inclusive Service: The 21st Century Fire and Rescue Service, declares the need to “change the culture of the service… historically dominated by white males” by targeting workplace ‘banter’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines banter as ‘the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’. More colloquially, it is understood to be the informal, jokey letting off steam, so important for camaraderie. But for the LGA, this unregulated speech is depicted misanthropically as an expression of “thinly disguised” sexism, dangerous “macho culture”, bigoted small talk that needs to be stamped out.

Such assaults on people’s free speech amongst mates are justified in the name of tackling bigotry. In fact, they reveal the bigotry of the ‘educated’ metropolitan diversity enforcers, unaware that their target culprits are not the ignorant, prejudiced Neanderthals they assume, but just people who do not spout the correct jargon or share their ‘I Find That Offensive!’ thin-skinned mentality. Goodhart cites polling across Anywheres and Somewheres that shows that the divide about liberal issues such as gay rights and racial discrimination barely exists, noting that Somewheres are “in the main, modern people for whom women’s equality and minority rights…are part of the air they breathe”. But who cares if they don’t sound the part?

Too many associated with local politics seem on a mission to police those who fail to adopt the correct terminology or attitudes associated with bien pensants, OR ELSE! The LGA report includes a chilling threat: “Notwithstanding the need for personal freedom, everyone needs to know…that they will be excluded if they demonstrate words or actions that do not confirm to the desired culture of the future. There is no room for maintaining the status quo.”

If localism’s missionaries similarly aim to replace the status quo with punitive dystopian echo chambers at odds with the electorate at large, albeit close to home at a local level, it is likely to suffer the same fate as Esperanto, doomed as a language only spoken by a clique talking to themselves.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

This essay appears in Localis’s recent essay collection: Neo-localism, rediscovering the nation