Why it's so crucial to mind our language

Alan Wardle writes

An old pal of mine remembers vividly the first time he met the Prince of Wales. During a school visit in mid-winter, Prince Charles leant over him and enquired, "Have you been skiing?" The small boy was obliged to answer: "No, Sir. I'm always this colour." Some might find this outlandishly offensive. How easy it occasionally seems to stumble into a claim of racism. Others will reflect that the Prince might have trod a little more cautiously, or possibly that he is, after all, just his father's son.

The current stramash over use of the word 'homosexual' reminds us that language is still contested. One person's tiny verbal infelicity can still cause another person's outrage.

Most gay people now use the words 'gay' or 'lesbian' to describe themselves because 'homosexual' can seem clinical and highhanded. But as the opposite of 'heterosexual' - in academic reports or public policy documents - it can also be perfectly appropriate. In issuing instructions that appeared to suggest the word should never be used at all, the Scottish Government might have been substituting hypersensitivity for highhandedness.

Happily, our country has changed from the days when most people thought women belonged in the kitchen, and homosexuals belonged in prison. Hurrah for that. And it's silly not to acknowledge that things are better than they've ever been.

Thousands of gay people can now get on with their lives - as teachers, solicitors and, yes, openly gay soldiers and sailors too - knowing that the quiet fact of their private life is no longer something that can be used to terrorise them out of their job. Major Scottish employers from Barclays and Clydesdale Bank to Lothian & Borders Police now recognise that people perform better when they can be themselves.

For a truly refreshing sign of how Scotland is maturing just look at this week's reports that newly elected MSP Ruth Davidson may join the race to be leader of the Scottish Conservatives. These have focused more on her politics and her hobby of kick-boxing - something that certainly might come in handy if she's to succeed Annabel Goldie - than her female partner.

We read regularly in magazines from OK! to Good Housekeeping of gay people - from Sir Elton John and David Furnish to Ricky Martin - who as parents are discovering their families can be as loving, unique, and magical (and sometimes exhausting) as everyone else's. Thankfully, all the credible evidence now suggests that children growing up in those families develop emotionally and intellectually in exactly the same way as others. (Some, in any case, would argue that the small number of such children growing up in loving families with two parents are possibly better off than the 295,000 growing up in Scotland in 2011 with just one parent.)

However, there's a bleaker picture too. Nine in 10 secondary school teachers in Scotland have witnessed homophobic bullying in their school, yet only one in five Scottish schools explicitly says that such bullying is wrong. It's deeply worrying that the level of 'hate crime' - attacks motivated by anti-gay prejudice - has doubled in the last four years. But when bullying in schools isn't addressed, young people grow up thinking that demeaning and attacking gay people on our streets is acceptable.

Workplace bullying of gay staff has declined The word 'gay' is still routinely used as a playground insult in primary schools, too. If a young person hears such language go unchallenged throughout their childhood and then discovers at 14, or 15, or 16 that they might be gay themselves it has a powerfully damaging impact. Insults such as 'nancy boy' and 'queer' are similarly hurtful and undermining of young people's self-esteem. That's something that no good teacher wants. So language does matter. And yes, that might mean occasionally we all have to tread carefully to protect the sensitivities of others, whether they be of a different sexual orientation, or faith, or ethnicity from our own or not.

However, sometimes political correctness isn't political correctness at all. It's just good manners and common sense. And as my Gran, a farmer's daughter from Helensburgh, would say, you can usually never have enough of either.


  • Alan Wardle is Director of Stonewall Scotland

  • This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Express on 7 July 2011

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