Using offensive language – a user’s guide

How should we treat language and attitudes that once were common, and which we now find unacceptable? I’m facing up to this problem when describing labour colonies for people with disabilities. These colonies were fairly widespread in Britain before 1939, and a variety of terms were used by their founders and managers to describe their inmates.

I’m feeling slightly sensitive about this issue, as I recently walked into a language skirmish largely of my own making. In a presentation on higher education, I referred to Joan Bakewell’s commendable campaigning on behalf of part-time higher education. As most of the audience came from a generation who are unlikely to remember her, I briefly said who she was, and also referred to a derogatory way in which she was described by many in my own generation. At least one person was offended by this, and said so (though not to me at the time).

Language skirmishes are frequent, and easily survived, but this one made me think. How should we handle the problem in academic writing? My own research has produced many examples of terms and ideas that we would now find deeply offensive, and I hesitated long and hard about whether I should include those that referred to people with learning disabilities or who suffered from mental ill-health.

In the end, I used the terms that contemporaries used. For the most part, I was using direct quotes, so it should be pretty clear to a reader that this is the case, but I also added a very short footnote to make it explicit and ambiguous. While I added no such explanation to justify the inclusion of language that expresses anti-Semitic views, fear of the Chinese, loathing for the Irish, and racial hatred in general, I think it is clear that I am quoting, and not approving, these contemporary perspectives.

Will that stop someone getting offended when they read this material? Probably not, but at least my intention is clear. And I don’t like the alternatives. One is for me to interject on every occasion that this particular term or view is unacceptable to me; that seems utterly ahistorical. The other is to ignore completely any scheme that was developed by people who used a language for their inmates that people like me now find offensive; that seems to me utterly dishonest.

Am I entirely comfortable with my compromise? Not really, but I can live with it (and the occasional complaint that I expect to receive). I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better solution. But thinking about it today made me aware of the one body of objectionable language that I haven’t really thought about: namely, how people used to talk about people from the working class.

I’ve written about the period between 1880 and 1939, then the powerful and comfortable thought nothing of describing unemployed men in the most disparaging terms. They took it for granted that they could attack and undermine the standing and respect of those whom they saw as their moral and social, and not just economic, inferiors. The language they used about people’s bodies and dignity was just what Pierre Bourdieu was talking about when he spoke of ‘symbolic violence’.

Why didn’t I reflect on this before starting today’s blog? Is it that we once more live in a similar culture, where mockery and disdain colour so many conversations about ‘neds’ or ‘chavs’, and where the unemployed are again portrayed casually as layabouts and slobs who deserve nothing from the rest of us but contempt?