Nick Cohen makes three important points. In his Spectator piece ‘The Cheating Language of Equality’ and its abridged version in last Sunday’s Observer ‘Honeyed Words do nothing to curb prejudice against the disabled’ he notes how insistence on certain adopting forms of language when discussing issues connected to disability have done little to obstruct deep and damaging cuts to services and financial support. Indeed, I would share his analysis and add that the very ideas and language advocated by people such as myself may also sometimes have been weaponised to make the case for cuts, or certainly may have had the effect of diminishing public concern. Cohen also bemoans the reliance on what he labels ‘euphemism’, arguing that ‘it is easier to remove state support if you describe disabilities in a sing-song voice so soft and light you make them sound as if they are not disabilities at all.’ It is certainly true that the story of disability rights and the language used to tell it has proved extremely weak in the face of the story of spending cuts and the need to ‘live within our means.’ And finally, Cohen argues that language used to describe disability, however often it is reinvented, is appropriated as terms of offence by the wider population, suggesting that while the language may change, prejudice appears able simply to adapt.
These points merit being taken seriously. However, Cohen’s insistence that ‘The notion that you can change the world by changing language gets history upside down’ crumbles in the face of much recent evidence on the power of narrative. Language does lead to change, as ‘living within our means’ has proven to austerity, as ‘take back control’ has proven to Brexit, as ‘make America great again’ has proven to Trump and – more positively for progressives – as ‘equal marriage’ has proven across the Western world in securing the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry. Of course, such language wasn’t invented or deployed in a vacuum, and speaks to and harnesses other currents of change, but it plays a crucial role in shaping our views, feelings and actions. Indeed, Cohen has spent a great deal of his considerable journalistic talents lately arguing (rightly in my view) that the Labour Party should adopt in full the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, essentially a guide to the language, statements or ideas that may constitute anti-Semitism and hence which should not be used. This is surely recognition of the power of language to shape the world for good or ill? The deliberately deployed narratives of others have succeeded where disability advocates have recently failed in mobilising feelings, motivating people and guiding their viewpoints, choices and actions. In sum, it isn’t true that language doesn’t lead to change, but it is true that language can fail to if poorly chosen or deployed.
In his Spectator piece, Cohen says ‘Half the words now on the banned list were kindly meant in their day.’ Let’s unpick this a little. When the Mental Deficiency Act of 1908 used the terms ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’, ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘moral imbecile’ it did not do so for benign reasons or to objectively describe people with learning disabilities, but to classify them as lesser human beings and hence justify discriminatory action, such as involuntary sterilisation and institutionalisation. Lest we forget the popularity of eugenics in Britain prior to the Second World War, not least among national heroes such as Winston Churchill and those of the left such as Sydney and Breatrice Webb. In Germany in the 1930s Nazi propaganda described people with learning disabilities or mental health problems as ‘useless eaters’, emphasising the costs involved in keeping people alive, as a prelude to their extermination, which in turn served as a dry run for the Holocaust. Only after the horrors of Nazi Germany became clear did eugenics lose (open) popularity in the UK, but its legacy is all around us, including in the language we use to deride one another. Cohen focuses on the word ‘spastic’ as an example of a word that was ‘kindly meant’, noting how Scope was previously the ‘Spastics Society’. But then, for Beatrice and Sydney Webb, so was eugenics (albeit through forced sterilisation and deprivation of liberty, not killing). The issue today is not how we choose to describe this or that impairment or health condition, it is how we avoid describing our fellow human beings in ways that dehumanise, degrade and which render them vulnerable. A person with cerebral palsy is not ‘a spastic’, they are a person, who has cerebral palsy. A person using a wheelchair is not ‘bound’ by it, they are liberated by it. A person with Downs Syndrome is not ‘suffering’ from it, it is simply part of who they are.
Hence, when Cohen concludes his Spectator piece by arguing ‘if you want to be radical in your politics, you must be conservative with your language’ one must wonder whether he is calling for a return to language that degrades and dehumanises (such as referring to a ‘simple man’) and if so, to what ends?
This is where the issue does go far deeper than language, for Cohen is insistent on equating disability with loss, suffering, pain, incapacity and so on. While Britain’s post-War welfare state may have abandoned eugenics and embraced the idea that disabled people (especially disabled veterans) could play a productive role, while it may have closed down many institutions, adopted anti-discrimination law and directed resources at supporting people to live in the community, disability continues to be construed overwhelmingly as a ‘deficit’ and it is the extent of this deficit that determines eligibility for State support. Hence governments since 2010 have been able to make deep cuts while arguing that they were protecting ‘the most vulnerable’ – those deemed to have no productive potential – and disability advocates are forced into a game of having to plead their vulnerability and lack of productive potential (attributes which in history have underscored prejudice and discrimination and which as noted above been exploited to sterilise, institutionalise and to kill) in order to safeguard what meagre income and life and limb services remain available to them. There is nothing radical or progressive about maintaining this situation, or employing language that reinforces it, but without a better story it is understandable that people should keep telling it.
In the first excellent episode of his Radio 4 series The Tyranny if Story, the journalist John Harris talks to the Ed Woodcock and Yannis Gabrial about the working parts of all stories, and how effective communications embody these. In summary, all stories involve a hero (or subject), an adventure (or mission), the possibility that things will be derailed (or an antagonist), the capacity of humans to solve the problem, and emotion (a happy ending, or a tragic ending). They argue that it is these ‘opposing forces’ that cause us to lean in and listen. As humans, we need not hear the whole story. A few words – make America great again; take back control – are enough for us to fill the gaps and understand the story
Disability rights advocacy has been about changing the components of the story: where the hero of the piece is not State or voluntary charity, but disabled people themselves, where the adventure is not towards being looked after well, but being the author of ones own life and taking part in society on an equal basis with others, where the antagonist is not the persons impairment or health condition, but the barriers that society has constructed that deny people their right to participate and take charge of their lives, where disabled people are not objects ‘saved’ by others, but equal partners in bringing about social change.
That new story clearly requires a very different form of language, otherwise it cannot be told, and won’t be heard. For any narrative to be effective it has to convey the goals of the storyteller, to avoid rallying feelings, thoughts and ideas that stand in the way of achieving them, or which provide the means to pursue contradictory goals – such as cutting support.
Disability rights advocates could then certainly do with a new compelling narrative, one that relies less on neutral words and euphemism (where terms such as inclusion or independent living, which have no meaning in the wider world, are accompanied by long winded and often contested explanations as to what they do or don’t mean) and which is able to command public support and stand firm in the face of attack. It has to make clear that investment in financial and practical support is investment in freedom and opportunity, not ‘welfare’, and consciously avoid the tropes which reinforce ideas of passivity and vulnerability. This initial work by the Frameworks Institute offers some useful insights into how a more compelling narrative might develop, but there is much work still to be done.
Cohen is right to say that change won’t come simply because language is policed. But language change goes hand in hand with social change. Ultimately, Cohen’s mistake is to call for us to be conservative both in language and politics.