Nick Cohen

Spastics, cretins and the political correctness of the right

Spastics, cretins and the political correctness of the right
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Ruth Richards, head of communications at Mind, has written a response to my criticism of the pointlessness of politically correct descriptions of the mentally ill and handicapped. As you would expect it is worth reading in full, but I am afraid it left me unconvinced.

She thinks that the effort to reshape language is worthwhile, and cannot see how today’s polite discourse will become tomorrow’s insults.

'I don’t agree that in however many years’ time the terms we use today will become offensive in their own right. “Person with mental health problems” is just far too clunky to be shouted in the playground.'

So it is. But 'mental' is already an insult, and other attempts to change the world merely by twiddling with language have been equally futile. To quote the most striking instance, in 1994, the Spastics’ Society changed its name to 'Scope'. One could not fault the motives of its rewrite men and women. Valerie Lang, a member of the executive council of the Spastics' Society at the time, who had cerebral palsy herself, said the charity ‘could not afford’ to stay with the name it had. 'Children would shout to each other "You big spastic" every time someone was clumsy or even if they just disagreed with them.' Now she looks back with pride, on what she achieved

'People had ceased to think of those with cerebral palsy as individuals. We might have a brain injury in common but we are all different and don't want to be put in a box labelled "spastic".'

Thus 'spastic' – a term which was originally meant kindly – has gone. But Ms Lang and her friends paid the usual price. People, who understood a word, did not understand the circumlocutions that replaced it. Instead of campaigning for better treatment for people with cerebral palsy, activists wasted political energy on correcting language and telling off innocent speakers for their failure to keep up with fashion. All for nothing. True, 'spastic' vanished from the language of everyone but yobs, as Ms Lang hoped it would. But the compilers of the Urban Dictionary now have a new entry.


School children of a certain age liked to use the word spastic or more commonly spaz as a term of abuse for other children. The Spastic Society, a UK charity, became aware of this and changed their name to Scope. A scopey is hence a byword for spaz.

“That chap is a wee bit scopey.”'

As this usage spreads how long before the politically correct insist that Scope changes its name? How long before we go off again on the game of pretending that changing language is a good or even adequate substitute for confronting need and prejudice? For as long as both exist no attempts at rewriting the dictionary will succeed. Today's euphemisms will become tomorrow's terms of abuse because they do not confront social problems but seek to wish them away with a twist of the tongue.

There is no more insulting term than 'cretin'. Yet in the Eighteenth Century, it had a specific meaning - a sufferer from iodine deficiency, and the stunted growth, deformity and brain damage that accompanied it. More to the point, far from being an insult, 'cretin' was an appeal to the public's conscience.

Peasants farming the poor soils of the Alpine valleys were prone to iodine deficiency. Good-hearted people, trying to spare sufferers from abuse and humiliation, derived 'cretin' from the French Alpine dialect word for Christian. They wanted to remind others that the afflicted were fellow believers, equally worthy of respect and God's love.

At the heart of this argument is a debate about language. I hope I am not distorting Ruth Richards’s position when I say that like so many others she believes that you can bring about change by changing words; that by rubbing out 'sufferer' and 'victim' - and indeed 'cretin' and 'spastic' - she can make society respect 'persons with mental health problems', and see them as 'empowered' and 'independent' individuals. At one point she says:

'We’ve asked our supporters and members, and you told us you didn’t see yourselves as victims. You told us you wanted to be empowered to take control of your own lives and to fight for the support you need. So we reflect that.'

I believe that you should use language plainly and that those who do not slip into propaganda. It is not true, that 'persons' suffering from serious mental illnesses and handicaps are empowered, and it is false to pretend that they are anything other than sufferers in need of help. It would be nice if it was, but it isn't.

Just as all the current enthusiasm for 'empowering' the elderly, and insisting that '80 is the new 70', and other such wishful, boosterish guff, soon runs into the hard facts of dementia and chronic illness, so pretending that 'persons with mental health problems' are not 'victims' or 'sufferers', if their ailments are anything other than minor, ignores the pain of the seriously ill. If you cannot admit this plainly, you play into the hands of those on the Right who are all too eager to cut funding for the sick and handicapped. It is no coincidence, as we old Marxists used to say, that political correctness has marched with neo-liberalism. Obscurantist language allows the assault on services, because it so mystifies and misleads the public that few understand why taxpayer support is needed.

I admit that I believe in plain language regardless of the political consequences. I would be a linguistic conservative in all circumstances, simply because if you want readers to understand you, you should stick to common usage, and not lose them by over complicating. (If readers throw down my writing in disgust, I want it to be because they have understood my ideas and rejected them, not because I have written so badly they can’t bear another moment in my company.) But I also believe – or, rather, hope – that clear language leads to a better society. I cannot often prove my point, but this time, surely I can.

In the case of the severely sick, even Ms Richards must see that political correctness is politically disastrous.