Christopher Smith


As Christians, we are very alive to the power of language. During Lent, we heard the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from Saint John’s Gospel, and who can fail to be moved by those words of Jesus, ‘Lazarus, come forth’? They are moving because of their context, and because they are—in the true sense—‘performative’. They do what they say. Unlike the circumstances of his healing of the man born blind, here, Jesus does nothing that is equivalent to making the paste and sending the man to wash. To Lazarus, Jesus gives one simple instruction. ‘Come forth.’

I wonder whether you noticed a story last month about Oxfam and the power of language. The charity is trying to control the language used by its staff, and, through their language, their thinking. This goes beyond frowning on the use of the first and second dictionary definitions of the word ‘man’ (‘human being’ and ‘the human race’) and even the fourth (‘adult human male, opp. to woman, boy, or both’). This goes much deeper.

‘Language has the power to reinforce or deconstruct systems of power that maintain poverty, inequality and suffering. … Choices in language can empower us to reframe issues, rewrite tired stories, challenge problematic ideas and build a radically better future based on a survivor-centred, intersectional, anti-racist and feminist vision of equality.’ Their Critical Theory agenda is clearly set out.

Early on, the report’s authors apologise for the fact that their document is written in English. ‘We recognise that this guide has its origin in English, the language of a colonising nation. We acknowledge the Anglo-supremacy of the sector as part of its coloniality. This guide aims to support people who have to work and communicate in the English language as part of this colonial legacy. However, we recognise that the dominance of English is one of the key issues that must be addressed in order to decolonise our ways of working and shift power.’ Yes, they did indeed use the word ‘coloniality’, which, like ‘decolonise’, is nothing to do with your large intestine.

The document attracted quite a lot of cynical press coverage, and Oxfam clutched its pearls and said that some journalists had chosen to ‘crop’ it. Presumably they were suggesting that it would not have appeared so ridiculous if it hadn’t been cropped, but, frankly, I could fill this column with quotations which would be an entirely fair representation of it and it would still appear ridiculous. Its readers dare not suggest that people are ‘suffering from’ an illness; they are living with one. People are no longer deaf, blind or autistic, and even the very word ‘people’, which we have tended to use to avoid offending folk who can’t understand the first and second dictionary definitions of ‘man’, is dodgy, since it ‘is often misunderstood as only referring to men’. Oops. ‘If you are going to use the phrase “people” in your writing, please make it clear early in the paper that you are referring to people of all genders, unless this is not the case.’ ‘All’ genders?

Just in case you hadn’t noticed the direction of travel, ‘We hope these principles and language guidelines will help you to choose words which align with your values and with feminist principles which we are committed to upholding, whatever the context.’ Don’t you ever refer to ‘ladies’, or even to ‘women and children’. Oh, and don’t refer to ‘women’s economic empowerment’, which (as you should have realised) ‘risks putting the onus on women to change themselves in order to fit into the existing economic system, even though it inherently discriminates against them’.

I found it particularly creepy to be told to avoid ‘committed suicide’ in preference to ‘completed suicide’. In this twisted world, only crimes are ‘committed’, and we wouldn’t want to remind people that suicide was once a criminal offence, would we? You ought to be ‘pro-choice’, but you mustn’t be ‘pro-life’. And we mustn’t talk about prostitutes and prostitution, but sex workers and sex work. What would they make of Rahab the harlot, who was ‘justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way’? Perhaps she should have billed them by the hour, as harlotry is presumably ‘dignified work’—a term which supersedes ‘decent work’—which is ‘productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity’.

And on and on it goes, through the alphabet soup of sexuality and ‘gender identity’—‘We avoid assuming it is correct to describe someone as ‘he’ or ‘she’ based on their name or physical appearance’—and I’m not going into the minefield around breastfeeding and other things that I always thought were relevant specifically to women. Don’t say ‘mixed race’, but do say BIPOC, although not in this country, where we leave out the ‘I’ for Indigenous. Don’t say ‘BAME’ any more, and don’t say ‘Caucasian’. ‘Aboriginal’ is acceptable in Australia, but not in Canada. Oh, sorry: I mean ‘What is now known as Canada’. And for heaven’s sake don’t refer to ‘developing countries’, even though you thought that was what had replaced ‘third world’. And ‘international development’ has ‘colonial roots’, so is on its way out, along with ‘aid sector’.

Don’t fall for it. That way madness lies, as King Lear said. Oh, hang on… Can I say ‘madness’?