One of my writing influences in my much younger days was the journalist Edwin Newman, a long time broadcaster for NBC. A foreign correspondent who travelled and reported from around the world, meticulous in how he wrote and the use of language, and would say nothing if nothing needed to be said. He was in the truest and best sense a reporter of the “old school”. His love of the English language and its use was clearly a subject near and dear to him, eventually writing two books about the proper use of language: “A Civil Tongue” and “Strictly speaking”. The books were attempts to sound the alarm and possibly curb our language from turning into a pablum of double speak and mediocrity; which he believed would ultimately irreparably damage the role of journalism. That was 1976.
Some 45 years later we seem to have reached that pinnacle of mediocrity, a total loss of objective reportage, the polarizing and prejudice of any political discussions and the outright abuse and misuse of the English language. Mr. Newman’s take on the new “woke” language would undoubtedly have been harsh.
In this age of auto-correct and on-line editing tools, is it even important that we adhere to definition and the proper use of a word?
It may actually be now more important than ever. The use of language is central to our seemingly fragile democracy and the institutions within it. Maybe now more than ever there is a more pressing need to be clear and concise in our language as we get pulled into and transported along the information highway and immense reach of the digital world.
Language allows us to express, to inform, and to reason, and we humans have the unique capacity to use complex language. We need it to communicate with others and even to construct and maintain our social world.
When many take liberties with the language or re-define its meanings there is a greater tendency to misconstrue, confuse, or obliterate the original meaning and therefore our understanding.
Being firmly cemented into a limitless broadband of narrative the endless bombardment of information seems to be have had the affect of dividing us into our own fragmented segments of society. Forcing people into their own space, a safe space, free from examination. We are becoming a mosaic of information sources, not a blending of our interests and goals. This lack of a central common interest seems to also lend itself to endless claims of disenfranchisement and victimization; of never being part of the majority. Politicians being politicians, now busy themselves with answering and catering to these endless slivers of society not the middle majority.
These separate groups of the like-minded– communicate within their group, often resorting to new terminology or a warping and blending of meanings. The translation of these newly formulated words is often unclear especially to those outside that immediate sphere of special interest.
An example of using language as a tool by a special interest group and the ramifications of when language is not clear has recently come to public light.
For the last number of years, every government and public forum was encouraged to open up any public meeting with an announcement that they were giving thanks to the local indigenous for allowing us to be on the “un-ceded territory of …”
This was of course aimed and perpetrated by the special interests of the Indigenous, and from the outside seemed relatively harmless. So our political leaders championed this clearly scripted genuflection and the word went down the Federal government line to the Provinces and local city governments. All quickly followed suit –not wanting to be left behind in this progressive narrative, or worse, branded part of the systemically racist Canada. But, it now turns out the language matters.
“Un-ceded” is not actually a word by the way, but “cede” means to give up power or territory.
When everyone in unison was saying “un-ceded territory” the implication could loosely be interpreted to mean that the Indigenous had from somewhere, clearly acquired “territorial and property rights” to the land. The more sinister gravamen was that land had in fact been taken from them and therefore an implied need for compensation for property or territory lost.
It was politically astute on the part of the Indigenous –the use of the term “cede” and “un-ceded” was a purposeful use of mis-leading language which could eventually form a foundation for an admission of political and economic responsibility on the part of the majority of Canadians.
The political and legal warning light has finally gone on in New Brunswick.
Justice Minister Hugh Fleming has ordered that staff stop making Indigenous land acknowledgements. The Indigenous, you see, are now claiming title to over 60% of the Province and the Province now finds itself in a series of legal arguments and land claims. The Attorney-General’s department has told the government workers that they should not make or issue “territorial acknowledgements”.
Predictably, the Six Chiefs of the Wolastoqey in the Province have countered by saying that they have “un-ceded Aboriginal title in the Province of New Brunswick”. They said land acknowledgements by the Provincial government were “a symbolic gesture but represent a starting point toward building and improving a relationship with First Nations”. Clearly, there is now some legal advice being given to the lawmakers of New Brunswick that the language being used is misleading at best and could be politically motivated.
The word term “reconciliation” being used and trumpeted by all the political woke is a very similar term and will likely prove to be equally misleading, and possibly equally legally detrimental.
But, what prompted this blogger to an examination of the use of language was not the politically astute Indigenous.
It was my recent discovery of a “glossary of terms” provided by the Association of Chiefs of Police. Prepared, no doubt, as a service to those working in the real world and not safely ensconced in an inclusion seminar in a government meeting room. The clear purpose here is to teach officers on how they should speak and write so as not to offend, a believed need to teach the language of the “woke”.
Before I go further, there is no offence intended, but police officers, at least in my experience were not always the most prolific writers or the best practitioners of the English language. It was often a supervisory life and death struggle to get officers to write reports that were lucid and properly explained the who, what, and where of a particular offence.
Reports to Crown Counsel was often a through the looking glass experiment as at the end of an eye watering read, one would be unsure as to meaning and point of the narrative.
There was the police tendency to write in your best imitation of a learned academic or a lawyer– he “stated” rather than he “said”. “Observed” rather than “saw”.Warrant applications were often long, redundant, with superfluous language designed to heighten the status of the writer rather than to communicate a message. Internal reports and other court applications were often measured and termed to be well done judged by their length rather than their content. The copy and paste function has now allowed obsessively long narratives to expand to the point of farce and is in and of itself proving to be a burden to the entire justice system.
So now, the poor police officer sitting at two in the morning, typing madly away at a search warrant, now needs to be concerned with the language of the “woke” and apparently needs to be armed with the glossary of language on his or her desktop.
Here are just a few of examples the police officer should take to heart according to their leaders. Starting with the “A”‘s
“ableism” – is a belief system that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration.
“agender” – is a person whose gender identity does not align to the traditional system of gender, who does not have a personal alignment with the concepts of either man or woman, and/or sees themselves as existing without gender, sometimes called “gender neutrois”
“Classism” – the cultural and institutional set of practises and beliefs that assign value to people according to their socio-economic status
“Co-gender” – is a term with at least three known possible definitions ( I will only just give you the first) is the mathematical union of two gender, as opposed to vengender, the intersection of two genders. A co-gender person is okay with being identified as either of the two genders.
“Deadname” – generally refers to the birth name of a transgender person that they no longer use.
“Demisexual” – refers to a person who only feels sexual attraction once a strong emotional bond is formed
Obviously, I could go on for quite some time, in fact all the way to Z. As a matter of interest, the last definition is of “white” which they say is a “social colour” only “indicating the majority” of Canadians. It is recognized that there are “many different people” who are white but who face class discrimination; because of their class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age etc.
The glossary also gives you examples of problematic language which you need to avoid and gives better alternatives that one should be using. For instance, you should not refer to anything which has “man” in it. Mankind, manpower, man hours, all are inappropriate. Biological sex should become “assigned sex”, and wife or husband should always become spouse or partner. It is not appropriate to say “caucasian” any more, you need to say white people, or European Canadian. (think of all the police forms that need to change). (I guess they didn’t realize that by saying European Canadian they were actually going against the “white” definition they had given earlier.)
So where does this leave us? Are we destined to all sink in this quagmire of ridiculous definition and narrative? Quite possibly.
Will it lead to an inability to communicate with the “majority”. That seems equally obvious.
Alternatively, maybe we could all take the Master Class offered on Clear and Concise Writing. There is a couple of fundamental rules which they all seem to profess. Avoid wordiness and distended sentence structures and to use shorter sentences and simple words. These authorities by the way all point an accusing finger at the biggest offender– government.
Mark Twain ” a strong advocate for simplicity and clarity, said “when you catch an adjective kill it”.
This glossary by the Chiefs was a glossary of adjectives that Mark Twain would like you to kill.
Of course, it would be a safe assumption that the Chiefs who authored this glossary didn’t actually write it. They themselves would likely not know half of the definitions. It was simply a check in the box of inclusion and diversity, a sacrifice to the Woke God to whom they now all pray.
Photo Courtesy of Alby Headrick via Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved