Ian Morris returns with his weekly column and this week, he responds to Greg Clarke’s recent resignation and explores the issue of inclusive language.
I love words, and possibly the more obscure the word, the better.
For some reason, this week I have answered the bland ‘How are you?’ opener to each team meeting with the answer, ‘resplendent’, which has thrown a couple of folk completely. Conformity suggests ‘ok’ or ‘fine’ is the expected answer, and my failure to comply makes people edgy.
At least resplendent is a real word; for many years now I have fallen into the quirky habit of trying to push the language further by creating new words. I was complimented this morning on a new word I created last year. I suggested that post-Brexit, most hauliers knew what they needed ‘paperworkistically’, which makes perfect sense to me. My new boss – yes, thanks I did get the job – is wary of this habit. She complains that often she has to go and check words in my emails to see if they are real.
I used to work for an American company and this process of making up words was standard, as was replacing a perfectly good ‘s’ with a superfluous – another great word – ‘z’. I think in presenting back some results to an American audience, when I suggested that a topic would benefit from further ‘quantificatioalization’, I may have peaked. Nobody batted an eyelid.
But words also have power, as FA Chairman Greg Clarke learned to his cost last week. Let’s start by looking at the Football Association’s track record on diversity and inclusion; it’s not too sparkly and, despite many efforts and initiatives, football is dogged by allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia. If you are the top man, or woman, of such an organisation then these issues should be somewhere near the top of your whiteboard.
Greg Clarke was addressing the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee and discussing the racist abuse of players on social media. He opened with the term ‘coloured footballers’, which is head-in-hands level of ignorant; followed it up by describing being gay as a ‘life choice’; and then hit the 3 for 3 bigot language bingo by stating that a coach told him young, female players don’t like having the ball kicked hard at them. He may as well have added, ‘they are girls after all’. Greg’s final flourish was to explain there are ‘a lot more South Asians than there are Afro-Caribbeans‘ in the FA’s IT department because ‘they have different career interests’, a delightful piece of racial stereotyping to ice this cake.
Greg resigned saying he was ‘deeply saddened’ at the offence caused.
In some corners of social media Greg’s resignation prompted an expected response: ‘Well, this is political correctness gone mad!’ Now, Greg is one of my tribe, we are both MCMAMAP (Middle Class, Middle Aged, Male and Pale), so we are the group most likely to explode ourselves in this linguistic minefield…except it isn’t really difficult to learn the appropriate language, is it?
Some words move from the acceptable list to unacceptable over time. If you research the former names of the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None, you will see what I mean, as an example.
Some words shift in meaning; to describe someone as ‘black’ might have been considered OK in the 70s, was misused (particularly in the US) and now is part of the term ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), which has also come under criticism in recent times. The word ‘queer‘ was used as a homophobic slur but has been adopted by the LGBTQ community as a blanket term – although this is a word I am not sure I would bandy about because I am an ally, but not part of that community.
The point is you have to do a bit of learning, and where Greg blew himself up is that he clearly demonstrated he was too lazy to take the time to understand the power and the impact words can have – even though he’s been in trouble for this before, with the same select committee. For me, he signposted that although I am sure he’s not a sexist, racist homophobe, he couldn’t be bothered to demonstrate it meant enough to him to learn the right language.
Some say there should have been more tolerance shown to Greg and he could have been re-educated. I think this is a fair argument for your Grandad who insists ‘I don’t mean nothing by it, in fact, I had a black friend when I was growing up,’ as he can at least deploy the ‘different times’ defence. However, if you are head of a high profile organisation, then I suggest the onus is on you to learn the right language to use.
I’d like to, if I can, leave you with a thought about self development. Remember: ‘a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man’ (which should now be changed to person). And if you have a problem with ’embiggen’, you shouldn’t. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
Something for the Weekend will be back next Friday, tackling national issues from a local perspective. In the meantime, you can check out all of Ian’s writing for S&C, here, along with past editions of the Pompey Politics Podcast.