I was sitting on the train to Birmingham the other day, admiring the beauty of the fog. It wraps itself around everything, obscuring some things and softening others. The word “mist" passed through my mind, making me smile a I remembered my German teacher saying that the word “mist" in German is the equivalent of “shit" in English and reading the phrase “the mist crept over the land" conjured a very different vision for him than the one from the train window!
Words shape our understanding of the world. They have the power to unite or divide. I know that at times political correctness seems to have run amok – I once heard the phrase ‘metabolically challenged’ used for dead – but at its heart is the desire to include people.
When I lived in Canada there was an effort to use more inclusive language. We had firefighters, police officers and mail carriers (or posties). Because this more inclusive language was used, “equal pay for work of equal value" began in the 1990s. The idea was to look at the essentials of a job in a gender neutral way, and then compare between jobs. The comparison was between a job dominated by women with one dominated by men. One famous example occurred in the mining industry where medical staff (mostly women) were compared to miners (mostly men). It turned out that both jobs were virtually equal in terms of value – but the medical staff were paid badly compared to the miners.
How did this happen? Well, it came about because the work was looked at it a neutral manner. The exposure risk the medical staff had to biohazards (blood, bodily fluids, infected wounds, diseases) were seen as hazards. What were the risks to the staff because of this exposure? The medical staff – like the miners – worked in shifts, could do overtime and faced the stresses associated with that. The point was not to devalue the risks associated with being a miner, but rather to properly assess the risks faced by all staff and compensate accordingly.
At its best, this is what politically correct language does. It reaches out and embraces people, describing a world that we can all see and understand. At its worst, it distorts and renders incomprehensible the world for all.
Words have the power to unite or divide people. Use yours to reach out, embrace people and create unity.
Beth Peakall is MD of TCLuk Training ( http://www.tcluk.com ) and TCLuk Housing ( http://www.tclukhousing.co.uk ), one of the UK's leading housing consultancies.