Words are important. And I’m not just saying that because I spend my working days trying desperately to wrangle them into some sort of order. Words have the power to stir emotions, to form and change opinions, to galvanize the spirit, to unite… or divide.
That’s why people remember Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech (imagine if he’d approached the dispatch box, shuffled his feet and muttered, “Er, ah, we’ll do the best we can, eh?”). It’s why Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a pithy two-minute oration consisting of 10 sentences, remains cherished; less so the contribution of Edward Everett, who preceded Lincoln on the stand and blithered on for a bum-numbing two hours.
In our connected world, words cross borders pretty much instantaneously. It’s therefore never been more important to choose them carefully.
In the wake of Nelson Piquet seeking to excuse his use of a racially derogatory term in reference to Lewis Hamilton by suggesting he had been mistranslated, there were those who sprang to his defence. Indeed, I was astounded at how many experts in Portuguese colloquialisms were present in the media centre at the British Grand Prix, where the story broke. There are those who regard the opprobrium heaped on individuals such as Piquet and Lionel Froissart (the Belgian TV commentator suspended for describing Lance Stroll as “autistic” during the Austrian GP) as mind-policing cancel culture presided over by illiberal liberals. Freedom of speech is no longer a thing, they cry.
Well – while pretty much every democracy constitutionally enshrines the right to express an opinion, I challenge you to locate in the relevant statutes any legally binding entitlement to be wrong, offensive, or a total arse. Words permeate our culture and set the frames of reference. Otherwise innocent nouns can be co-opted and weaponised to stoke divisions. When Lewis Hamilton spoke of “daily microaggressions” he wasn’t being a ‘snowflake’ (to use one such recently repurposed noun), he was describing his lived experience of encountering discriminatory language.
It was the Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel who first began to codify social identity theory, and whose experiments revealed the almost frightening speed with which in-groups form based on perceived shared characteristics – and how they then identify and discriminate against out-groups, often unconsciously. Words and the terminology we use to describe each other underpin this process.
With all this in mind, then – how about minding our language? Step by step, from a humble starting point, we can make the world a nicer place for all.
That’s a theme I touch on in my back-page column in this issue – which will also be my last one before a new tenant moves in, since I’ve now taken up residence on this page. It’s a privilege to be invited to edit this august publication – coincidentally just in time for the August issue…