If language matters…

Further to my recent surgically-endowed streak of martyrial self-entitlement, I phoned HMRC today, to request an extension on my self-assessment tax return deadline, on the basis of temporary post-operative impairment.

It was less difficult to achieve than you might imagine, once I was actually able to speak to an actual person. Well.. okay,  I spoke to a northerner, but it was a decent facsimilie of an actual person at least,

A notion occured to me in the course of doing so, and that is why and when language matters.

An idea I’m groping towards as I process my latest experience with the state is that there needs to be a way – perhaps more intelligent hierarchy and devolution – to disrupt the phenomenon whereby we all become merely a line on a bureacrat’s spreadsheet – a statistic rather than an actual person.

In the case of the NHS, that applies equally to patients and front-line staff. That severing of the human links between the politician, the functionary, the tax-payer and the service recipient is at the heart of what makes government so toxic and publicly provided services such upsettingly poor value and disrespectful to the individual.

You don’t need to look far to find strident claims that language matters.. mis-gender someone, use clumsy or outdated epithets for racial, religious, natonal or sexual attributes (subjective or objective as they may be) and you can see your life crumble before your eyes in the cleansing dumpster-fire of the internet.

So language matters or it doesn’t right? We accept the premise or we don’t. Words have meaning and impact.

So when I was told by the Greggs-enthusiast at HMRC that my deferral request had been granted under the category of ‘reasonable excuse’ I took issue with the chap. He was only reading his lines, and I understood that, so I didn’t monster him, but I made damned sure he took a message of embarassment and contrition back to his bosses.

Undergoing cutting-edge, complex surgery for a life-threatening brain tumour whose existence was unrelated to any environmental factors or lifestyle choices is a ‘reasonable excuse’. I suppose I should be thankful.

Am I being over-sensitive here? Isn’t ‘I never got the letter’ or ‘I’m in the middle of a messy divorce’ a reasonable excuse? Whereas what I described more like a ‘legitimate justification’ or ‘act of God’?

If women can bring something to the workplace – and I know that they can and do – couldn’t that be the sort of emotional intelligence, humanity and appropriately-applied compassion that large organisations (public or private) so frequently seem to lack?

Does corporate and government ‘virtue-signalling’ actually represent an insulting and cynical potemkin-civility that allows people’s humanity to be systemically ‘taken as read’ and then conveniently set aside?

And doesn’t virtue-signalling for individuals act as a all-purpose Anderson Shelter from under which half of us all can be dehumanised and delegitimised as alt-right or Nazi on the most confected of pretexts befofre being righteously eviscerated? Does this all come back to relativism?

A part of me is very happy for you to assert I’m being an asshole about this, but I think there’s a valuable principle at stake underneath this.

Am I alone?



4 thoughts on “If language matters…

  1. I have no idea whether your blog was written under the effects of post operative medication, alcohol, or street bought drugs, but the only criticism I can make is the tunnel visioned implication that people from the north are akin to the American rednecks of Kentucky.
    Comments like “..a northerner…a decent facsimile of an actual person…” and “..the Griggs enthusiast at HMRC…” does little to enhance the image of an intelligent blogger, writing about relevant topics.
    You may receive comments from other northerners, but I would like to put my case forward. Born in the north east of England, British Army and then a county Police force, serving my country and then my local community. A degree in engineering and an MBE to add to several military honours and awards, although to the ignorant and uneducated, and there are a lot of them in the southern sh*t hole of outer London in which I am required to live, I was a plank and then a wooden top.
    Have you tried contacting some of the cretins in a London council or social services? And they have Greggs down here in ‘civilisation’ too.
    An interesting post, and I am unable to comment on the form reading big thick Geordie you encountered, but less of the blatant regionalisation can only make your blog as interesting as it has been in the past.

    • It was the first option. You may be forgiven for not realising that I’m a northerner exercising a particularly Mancunian style of self-deprecating humour. Clearly, I was taking too much as read, and you perhaps too little.

      I simply thought it a colourful way to animate the idea of language mattering.

      Never let it be said that we pit-dwelling provincial pigmies are at all touchy about what the southerners think of us.

      Thanks for reading :-)

  2. During my recent divorce we used a professional to help us navigate the laws without blowing all our cash on lawyers. He introduced himself to me by proudly saying that he was in ‘the divorce business’. It took all my willpower not to immediately punch him in the face.

    • I know what you mean, dude…

      Tact and language are an interesting thing… they seem almost innate to native English speakers, and yet speakers whose first tongue is e.g. Dutch, German, Polish etc seem to have a bluntness and lack of tact that we find incredibly jarring.

      First word in today’s “English for non-native professionals” class is “circumlocution’.

      It’s not a problem I’ve noticed with French speakers, with their euphemism-rich language, but perhaps Tim Newman would know more than me about that.

      What are the Italians like in that respect?

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