Spit it out: it's inappropriate behaviour to beat about the bush

Angela Lambert argues for an end to politically correct language that robs words of their meaning
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Several angry social workers have taken me to task for objecting, in an article about the investigation into photographs taken by the newsreader Julia Somerville of her daughter, to their use of the word "inappropriate". We are constantly being told that behaviour is "inappropriate". I suggested that what they really meant, and should therefore say, is "wrong". Inappropriate is only one of many such words that strip language of its force and truthfulness.

Here is an example from one of several polite letters and telephone calls that have rebuked me. This writer says: "One of the basic tools of my [ie a social worker's] trade is the verbal ability to converse with people from all walks of life, each with differing intellectual inability. To say wrong to an individual who may perpetrate abuse is often not a recognised statement." Translated into clear and simple English, these sentences would read: "A social worker like me has to talk to all sorts of people, some of whom are quite stupid, and telling those of them who have sex with their children that it is wrong is just not something they can understand."

Another example: "We [ie social workers] are bound by silence to effectively advocate for the positive work we may complete. This style of reporting I find innapropriate [sic], sorry wrong, and leads to an even higher negative projection of social worker's." Grammatical and spelling mistakes may be unimportant (though I do not think so) but when - as in this case - they obscure, if they do not actually reverse, the meaning of what the writer is trying to say, they do matter. It is not easy to make sense of the first sentence, but I imagine it is trying to say, "Our professional ethics force us to remain silent, which prevents us from standing up for the good work we do".

The root of the problem is that social workers have been trained never to tell their "clients" that their behaviour is wrong. To do so would be "judgemental". As a result, the language of social work is emasculated - or efeminised, since the use of non-sexist language also ranks high on their priorities - and people cannot say, although it badly needs saying, that nothing justifies or excuses parents who have sexual intercourse with their children.

Common-sense seems to be in dangerously short supply among the politically correct. I am not, dear heavens, pretending that no child is ever abused, and I know very well that families are often in desperate need of guidance and help if their weakest members are to be protected. Nor am I arguing against the usefulness of social workers; I am only saying that I deplore their vocabulary.

It is not only social workers who misuse words. Therapists of every colour and persuasion resort to the same feeble, cowardly and evasive language, a language in which individuals find space and explore themselves, that is designed to comfort rather than encourage openness. Until we can say straightforwardly that having sex with children or beating up your partner is wrong - not inappropriate, wrong - we cannot begin to deal with the problem. But because our society lacks a universally accepted ethical framework we have lost the ability to say, "Do not do that." Social workers are only the hapless instruments of the general will; they lack simple certainties, like the rest of us, and dare not be judgemental.

People are unlikely to change their behaviour if they are supplied with excuses. Teaching them to justify their wickedness will only prolong the damage inflicted on their victims - which is why the perversion of language really matters. In the end there may be much to be said for what a brave, warm, badly hurt, yet optimistic friend of mine called the "pull yourself together man" school of therapy.

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