Debra Allcock Tyler: Mind your language

We must not allow ourselves to be manipulated into buying into misleading narratives

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I’ve gained a bit of weight recently and, upon meeting a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while, was much amused by her enthusiastic "you look really well".

My sister and I used to laugh about the fact that women have two first-look greetings – either "you’ve lost weight!" or "you look well". The latter is a very subtle way of pointing out the pounds you've gained.  

The way we use language and imagery is subtle, but so powerful. Context, placement, implied messaging all contribute to us forming a picture that is more than the actual words used.

For example, the words we use about older people effectively take away the notion of agency. We say "she fell over" about someone young and "she had a fall" about someone old. We say "I am meeting my mother for lunch" until she’s got old, when we’re more likely to say "I’m taking my mother to lunch". 

This subtle shift in language implicitly makes the person a passive object to whom things happen rather than someone who has control. And ultimately this is disempowering and infantilising.  

This is happening in our political space too. From waving kippers at a press conference (not a sentence I ever thought I’d write) to imply draconian EU regulations violating the kipper eater’s rights (untrue), to the use of pseudo-Churchillian language to evoke images of brave Britain at war with the rest of Europe – literally by using the word "war" as in calling a "Brexit War Cabinet", ergo implying that the EU is the enemy and that we are the innocent brave defending our country – our Prime Minister is guilty of this cynically manipulative use of language and imagery.

This happens in our sector too. Think of the Charity Commission’s subliminal message that charities are all unethical when it says "the basic public expectation that a charity must behave like one" or that "…charities of all sizes… they too must read the writing on the wall".

The implication is that charities are the enemy of the public and the commission is bravely protecting them (conveniently forgetting that it’s the public who found, fund, run, volunteer for and use charities).  

We must not allow clever language and phraseology to divert or manipulate us or the public into buying into narratives that are misleading at best and dangerous at worst. 

From how we talk to people and how we describe folk, to the political rhetoric and the negative narrative about charities and the EU, we need to reclaim the conversational high ground. We need to publicly question and challenge what is said to and about us, and we need to be hyper alert to what language we use ourselves. We need to have the last word*.

*However, if the next friend I meet takes my advice literally and greets me with "hello, chubster!" I may well reconsider my position – and the friendship.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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