Forget what the adage says about words never hurting. Language can be harmful—and has been for a long timeby Simon Lancaster / February 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Political correctness has never seemed less correct. It’s been blamed for Brexit, the rise of Trump and the woes of the white working-classes. But for all the complaints about our language being over-policed, without some care we can easily lapse, or be led, into tropes that don’t liberate our thought, but warp it.
Linguistic dehumanisation can, and often has, been followed by physical violence.
These six insidiously powerful metaphors show how, when we lose control of language, we lose control of humanity.
In 780BC, the poet Semonides of Amorgos deployed an epithet that would have remarkable longevity. He depicted women as “bitches who stray everywhere, always yapping. A man cannot stop her by knocking out her teeth with a stone. Ceaselessly, she continues barking.” Academic studies have shown that men who instinctively associate women with animals are more likely to commit sexual assault or violence against them. Mel Gibson and OJ Simpson both used the word about their girlfriends before attacking them.
Yet the word has become worryingly normalised: between 1997 and 2008 the use of the word on television trebled, and is a common term of abuse against women on social media. And, of course, Donald Trump was caught on tape saying, “I moved on her like a bitch,” before describing his “seduction” technique.
The idea of black people as “apes” is so repellent it’s hard to believe it emerged from supposedly rational scientists. Carl Linnaeus’s 1758 Systema Naturae depicted them as the missing link between apes and human. His idea, which has no basis in fact, warped scientific thinking through to the early 20th century—and it still warps social attitudes.
Jennifer Ebenhart at Stanford found that black men were far more likely than whites to be described with ape metaphors in criminal trials: “whooping,” “aping,” “urban jungle.” Police officer Larry Powell described a mixed-race couple as like Gorillas in the Mist shortly before giving Rodney King the beating that would spark the 1992 LA riots.
Black football players may get pelted with fewer bananas these days, but Michelle Obama, Diane Abbott and Gina Miller have all endured epithets to do with monkeys or apes.…