This was one of the themes in last week's Assembly, a good one, a challenging one, and one I wrestle with endlessly. I am by initial training and nature a scientist, which means I write stuff in a fairly straightforward way. I was rubbish at story writing at school, but was excellent at factual essays; constructing a cogent argument was fine, creating a fictional narrative a nightmare. Later, my theology tutors used to complain that my sentences and paragraphs were too short, so I worked hard to cultivate the practice of using several subordinate clauses, even if I thought using several, shorter sentences was less confusing and kinder on the metaphorical lungs (you get my drift....?!). Over my time in ministry, I have worked hard to be sensitive in language, and have cultivated a way of writing my sermons that evades/avoids the bear-traps of gendered language which can be unhelpful. I have listened carefully to the voices of people who are not Caucasian and not heterosexual and not well educated, each of which I am, (just in case you weren't aware) to try to find ways of speaking that are not merely inoffensive but actually helpful. Suffice it to say, I trip over my size six-and-a-half (according to Clarks) feet with monotonous regularity.
As part of my MPhil research, I did quite a bit of reading about language and semantics (not just as in 'pickiness' but as a 'science') all of which served to make me more aware, and more tense, and more cautious. Words don't merely express thoughts, they form them. Words aren't benign, they are infused with meaning and intent. One of the speakers at the Assembly, who came from a Northern Irish context, spoke of the power of references by Ian Paisley to 'Sinn Fein-IRA', an expression he quietly dropped once Sinn Fein had been democratically elected to a position of power. It isn't for me to comment on how intentional his use of the elision was, but it was effective in conditioning my thinking, and that of many others, at the time.
So, language is powerful, but it is also slippery - words change their meanings over time and between contexts. Some years ago I was chatting to someone who worked in safety in food production, an industry which has some parallels on control of hazards as the nuclear industry. It soon became clear that we were using identical language with opposite meaning. For him, the hazard was bugs getting in to the high risk area where raw or cooked meat products were - he wanted to keep them out. For me the hazard was nasties getting out of a radioactive area - I wanted to keep them in. Context matters, local usage matters, chronological time through history matters.
I could get paranoid here (and, after all, they are out to get me...) so what do I do?Revert to nice, scientist friendly lists!
- I try to be aware of the reality that I am a white, heterosexual, single, celibate, well-educated, Christian (etc., etc.) woman, and that that shapes my thinking and speaking
- I try to listen to voices of people who might be offended or excluded by my language, and/or try to think how I might be heard by them
- I try to cultivate, practice and encourage modes of writing and speech that are generous, avoiding defamatory or judgemental remarks
- I get it wrong sometimes, so I try to learn and move on - but I'm everso good at self-beating-up; I still have to work out the bit about generous to myself!
I write a lot of words for a living - it does me good to pause to reflect on the power, recognised or not, that affords me.
PS my typing isn't great, and my spelling/proof-reading abilities not what they once were, so please be generous as readers :o)