Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Seven Words You Can't Say at the Ministry of Community and Social Services

In tribute to the late great George Carlin.

David Menzies, in the National Post, draws our attention to the "newspeak" glossary of acceptable and unacceptable words drawn up by bureauthink-tank functionaries for use in Ontario's Ministry of Community and Social Services. In some ways, it seems like a time machine document. It escorts us into the bureaucratic "wayback machine" to the halcyon days of the mid-1990s. This was when political correctness, having been hatched in the social science departments of universities and incubated in activist student clubs, lunged forward full stride into the government bureaucracies, equity offices, and media outlets of the land. While on the surface this creature was benign and well-intentioned, it carried the highly infectious "self-righteous piety virus (SRPV). There is no known cure.

And just when we think that we had all mastered the newthink newspeak of the 90s, the metaphorical rug, upon which was embroidered the politically acceptable vernacular, is pulled out from under us. The language engineers have decided that we're wrong again. We're just not sensitive enough. Who can keep up?

David Menzies writes:

Upon taking delivery of a document from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, I've come to the jarring conclusion that I'm behind the sensitivity curve.

The document I speak of is the ministry's comprehensive guide aiming to make "communication and interactions with or about people with all types of disabilities more successful." In other words, out with the old, basic, no-nonsense descriptive terms (which we all understand) and in with newer, kinder, gentler, awkward, long-winded and even downright mystifying lingo.

So, from Menzies' column, let's review the "Seven Words You Can't Say at the Ministry of Community and Social Services." (Note: this is not an exhaustive list, not even close. But then neither was George Carlin's list of words you can't say on television.)

  • Blind. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this versatile (but banned) word can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a verb. The adjectival meaning is "lacking the power of sight." But instead of blind, the newly prescribed idiom is ... wait for it ... "a person with vision loss." Why not "a person lacking the power of sight," since we're clearly trying to replace actual words with their definitions in common speech? If one loses vision then, help may be found at the So, reductio ad censorum, how far do we need to take this? Three mice with vision loss; three mice with vision loss; see how they run; etc. And what do we do with "colour blind" (an affliction primarily affecting men), "blind spot" (in driver training manuals), and "Blinded by the Light" (a Bruce Springsteen song)?
  • Deaf. The OED identifies this banned word as an adjective meaning "wholly or partly without hearing." Well, that seems benign enough, so what's wrong with 'deaf'? Well, it doesn't explicitly state the obvious and isn't sufficiently redundant. We must say "a person with profound hearing loss," or "a person who is hard of hearing." Again, a definition to replace an actual word. So what do we do with 'tone deaf' -- 'a person who is hard of hearing music'? Menzies doesn't tell us if "dumb" was on the list. If not, I'm sure it was just an oversight (sorry, an 'overvisualability').
  • Epileptic. The Ministry would prefer that we say "a person with epilepsy." Okay, fair enough. I get it. You want to emphasize the person, not the condition. Other than the forced and awkward language, I don't have a problem with that sentiment. I know that there was a time when epilepsy was interpreted as demonic possession. Although, (and maybe I've just been culturally cloistered the past four decades) I don't recall hearing anyone use the word 'epileptic' in a mean-spirited or pejorative manner any time in the recent past. If people have done that, they haven't done it my presence, nor on any media to which I've been exposed. So, is this a linguistic solution to an attitudinal problem that doesn't exist anymore, or isn't that commonplace? [I'm allowing for the possibility that I may be missing something here.]
  • Elderly. We're supposed to say "older adults" apparently. I've had a fair bit of exposure to 'older adults' and I've yet to meet one who wishes to be called an 'older adult'. Besides, the word "senior" was already perfectly appropriate, and more accurately reflects how 'older adults' might describe themselves as a group. Hence, we have the Senior Citizens' Coalition and the Canada Senior Games. Still, if you would actually ask 'older adults' what they would prefer to be called, I'm pretty sure most would say that they would prefer to be called by their own damn names.
  • Midget/Dwarf. The consultrepreneurs would prefer that we say "a person of short stature." Again fair enough, if you don't find the laboured phrasing too jarring. But jarring it is, when you actually try to use it in a sentence. I challenge you to use it (or any of the others) in a sentence without sounding and appearing entirely self-conscious. And does the same prescription (that is, the replacing of a real word with its definition in common speech) apply also to metaphorical uses? Shall "midget hockey" now be "people of short stature hockey"? (Actually I suppose it could.) Shall "dwarf star diablo" now be known as "star of short stature diablo"? Surprisingly the language monitors seem to have overlooked cheeky pop culture references like "munchkin". I'm sure Menzies would have mentioned it.
  • Physically challenged. Okay, this one ticks me off. Back in the 1990s, we were browbeaten into saying such things as "physically challenged," "mentally challenged," and "(you name it) challenged" so as not to draw attention to the disability. Some even lobbied for "differently-abled," although it was always unclear what the different ability was (unless, of course, you were referring to a psychic, or someone with E.S.P., or more realistically a savant.) At any rate, we learned to address challenges, not disabilities, and focus on what people could do rather than what they couldn't do. Actually that's a really positive habit of mind. Not any more, say the new lingocrats. One is no longer physically challenged; one is "a person with a disability." So, to be consistent with all of the foregoing examples, we've reasserted the 'personhood' but we've drawn attention back to the disability. What gives?!?
  • Normal. You didn't think this would escape the scrutiny of the linguistic gatekeepers, did you? "Normal" must be cast according to what it is not. So, one who is "normal" is "a now a person who is not disabled." Does anyone still use "normal" to define lack of disability, or is it used more benignly (as in the first listed use in the OED) to mean "conforming to a standard." Probably a bit of both, actually. But to replace "normal" with a phrase that says what it isn't? Well, that's a little bit like replacing Canadian with "not American" or conservative with "not liberal". Perhaps the intention is to ensure that 'people with disabilities' (to self-consciously use the prescribed phrase) are not identified in contradistinction to a standard (i.e., as not normal) and, at the same time, to bring people who might define themselves as 'normal' down a peg.

There are, of course, plenty of other examples. What they share in common are a series of underlying ideas -- that words define the parameters of thoughts, that personhood must be emphasized over condition (even at the risk of redundancy), and that language is inherently political. What they also share in common are a series of aesthetic blunders -- that convoluted descriptive clauses should replace concise words, that ambiguity is preferable to clarity, that changes to common language should be prescribed and imposed by fiat rather than allowing such changes to develop and evolve 'organically'.

So, what to make of the work of the lingocrats and consultrepreneurs? Well, I'm reminded of a quotation commonly attributed to Sir Alec Issigonis, the automotive engineer who designed the Morris Minor and the Austin Mini: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee."

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