Since the EU referendum result last June our nation has been divided: not only by the vote but also by language. If 62 per cent of Britons (many of whom undoubtedly voted for Brexit) now say Britain ‘sometimes feels like a foreign country’, it’s not anti-foreigner prejudice so much as a feeling that people in authority are speaking at them in a foreign language. Not Polish or Punjabi but PC-speak, that opaque code that connotes whether you are ‘on message’ and one of ‘our kind of people’ or one of those racist lizard-brained Leaver oiks.
Look at the new language of diversity that is now being prescribed in much of the public sector. 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 ‘manpower’ with ‘staff, workforce, personnel, workers’. Ludicrously, pregnant women should no longer be called ‘expectant mothers’ but ‘pregnant people’. The Times reported in April 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. 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 or whatever for using the wrong words.
There is a distasteful snobbery lurking beneath the boast that Remainers had the best-educated on their side. But you don’t need A-levels or a degree to be smart, rational, politically shrewd, brave or forward thinking. History’s freedom fighters, from the sans-culottes to the founders of trade unionism — the people whose struggles created our modern, liberal Europe — were often uneducated, even illiterate.
But the educational advantage that does matter is knowing the rules that govern new ways of speaking. These are often inculcated in university. In David Goodhart’s important book The Road to Somewhere, he describes the gulf between Anywheres (the metropolitan graduate tribe) and ‘Somewheres’ (the Brexitland tribe). The referendum results show that outside London and Scotland the highest-voting Remain areas were either ‘home to a university or have a very high entry rate to university’, while most high-voting Leave areas not only do not have a university but are geographically remote from higher-education institutions.
Let no one conclude 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 (my book I Find That Offensive! has examples). In the opaque world of student politics Germaine Greer can be no-platformed as the wrong type of feminist, speech is cordoned off in safe spaces and trigger warnings are issued for great works of literature in case they cause emotional distress.
We might mock those absurdities of university life such as insisting that wearing a sombrero at a Mexican-themed party is 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 all this seems far removed from everyday life, we should not fool ourselves that such censorious micro-managing of speech is confined to the ivory towers. It’s a mistake to underestimate the key role that colleges play in shaping the world view of the metropolitan elites who go on to dominate politics, media and employment.
University life initiates almost half of tomorrow’s opinion formers into the rhetoric of identity and inclusivity, into the rules about which the combination of words can get you into trouble, into the parameters of what is considered offensive. It is this ever-growing army of graduates, well versed in the acceptable discourse, who now populate local government. They are often members of a new professional class of expert, trained to detect offensive speech and re-educate the public mind, and all the while making their way to commanding positions in 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 fashionable target — and one of the most invasive interventions by the army of language cops — is to disparage banter, so ‘mate speech’ is demonised as ‘hate speech’. For example, the Local Government Association’s report called ‘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 among friends are justified in the name of tackling bigotry. In fact, they reveal the bigotry of the ‘educated’ diversity enforcers, who remain unaware that their target culprits are not the ignorant, prejudiced Neanderthals they assume them to be, but just people who do not spout the correct jargon or share their ‘I Find That Offensive!’ thin-skinned mentality. Goodhart cites polling across both ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’ that shows barely any divide on liberal issues such as gay rights and racial discrimination. It concludes that the 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 what they really think if they don’t talk the talk?
Too many associated with local politics seem to be on a mission to police those who fail to adopt the correct terminology or attitudes. 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 conform to the desired culture of the future. There is no room for maintaining the status quo.’
If the missionaries for this new form of localism aim to replace the status quo with their own punitive dystopian echo chambers totally at odds with the electorate at large, then their cause is likely to suffer the same fate as Esperanto, doomed as a language spoken by a clique who can only talk among themselves.
Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, and Sam Leith on the perils of language on The Spectator Podcast.