Christopher Smith falls down the linguistic rabbit hole again


Who’d have thought that calling a group of people ‘ladies and gentlemen’ would, in 2021, be considered offensive?  I really didn’t see that coming.  Some hapless guard on a train recently started an announcement that way: ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.’  And nowadays you, as an offended person, can type your irritation straight into Twitter and someone at the railway company is employed to try to keep you sweet.  ‘So as a non-binary person this announcement doesn’t actually apply to me so I won’t listen’.  Let’s not get distracted by the use of ‘So’ to open the sentence; we can save that for another time.

It’s probably true to say that most of us occasionally say things we regret, perhaps petulantly or querulously, and we are sometimes on the receiving end of them as well, in which case it is often best to spare the speaker’s blushes and pretend not to have heard.  But London North Eastern Railway Ltd did respond, through whoever does their tweeting.  Somewhere on that East Coast Main Line from London to Scotland, the company responded, ‘I’m really sorry to see this, Laurence, our Train Managers should not be using language like this’.

‘Language like this’?  It’s hardly a volley of abuse, is it?  On the contrary, ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ has always been regarded as flatteringly polite in a context where few of its recipients are, as it were, of private means.  Would the guard have done better or worse to have started, ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen’?  And what actually is ‘a non-binary person’?  At least he got the hyphen in, which I suppose is to his credit.  The apology went on, ‘Please could you let me know which service you are on and I will ensure they [the guard, presumably] remain as inclusive as we strive to be at LNER’.  Goodness knows what indignity the poor bloke was subjected to in order to atone for his sin.  Unconscious bias training at the very least, I should think; public flogging, maybe.  In any event, he’ll have learned his lesson, and he’ll never say ‘ladies and gentlemen’ again over the Tannoy, but will resort to some formula that will inevitably be less polite.

So what’s going on here?  The railway company wouldn’t have put out that apology if it didn’t think it would suffer reputational damage otherwise; it would have let it lie where it fell.  The apology was, I imagine, motivated by fear, rather than by genuine regret: fear of being set upon by the woke mob, who have very little presence in the ‘outside’ world, but who dominate social media.  Certainly, more people will have been annoyed by that apology than pleased by it, and a good number of them will have noted its insincerity, but at least LNER have been spared online cancellation.

Perhaps we should look back to our old adversary, postmodernism, with, as Britannica puts it, its ‘general suspicion of reason’ and its ‘acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power’.  That online entry is illustrated by a photograph of Jacques Derrida.  Postmodernism is a word unknown to my trusty 1981 Concise OED, but it gets an entry in the 1995 edition, where it is defined as a movement ‘reacting against modern tendencies’.  In fact, it has come to mean the opposite.  Chambers online says it ‘takes many features of Modernism to new and more playful extremes’.  Playful?  Not often, I fear.

I’ve been dipping into a new book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, from whose work I quoted a couple of years ago in this column.  It’s called Cynical Theories (as opposed to Critical Theories) – How Universities made everything about Race, Gender, and Identity.  They are of the opinion that the central themes of postmodernism include the idea that the ‘self’ is not something given to us, and certainly not given to us by God, but is something that is constructed by cultural forces, and that we can, if we will, construct for ourselves.  ‘I am my own special creation’, in the words of the song.  Morality, then, is all relative, because it is all socially constructed.  And, taken to the extreme, postmodernism inevitably leads to the doubting of the objectivity of ‘truth’, and we end up asking each other with a straight face about ‘your truth’.  As the authors say, ‘Knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality are therefore, according to postmodernist thinking, culturally constructed and relative products of individual cultures, none of which possess the necessary tools or terms to evaluate others’.

Contrary to the 1995 definition, then, postmodernism rejects modernism, and so even the Enlightenment.  ‘He who asserts must prove’, as the old legal maxim had it, and the Church squirmed a bit in the eighteenth century under the cool eye of the likes of Voltaire and Hume.  But now, he (or ze) who feels doesn’t need to prove anything at all.  It’s all in the language.  

To understand that mindset, you have to enter with Derrida into a Wonderland in which words do not refer straightforwardly to things in the real world: there is no meaning beyond the mere text.  ‘Meaning’ can only be relative, so is of little use for the purpose of communication, since what I may claim my words mean may not be what they mean to you, and your interpretation as hearer is just as valid as mine as speaker.  And so you have every right to take offence at something I have said, even if I say that I didn’t mean it in the way in which you have interpreted it.

Exhausting, isn’t it?  And where does it get us?  Het up, sitting on a train, taking offence at ‘ladies and gentlemen’.  The last thing we need is for the Church to allow itself to be drawn into all that…  Oh…