Have you offended anyone yet this year? Said something out of order? Been a bit sexist? Homophobic? Xenophobic? Trump-phobic? For those of us who deal in words – and worry endlessly about the responsible use of them – 2017 is shaping up to be a year of fascinating fights over the language we use in the era of Trump and Brexit.
Language, to state the obvious, is at the core of being a thinking person. We need it to describe our thoughts. Arguably we need it to have the thoughts in the first place. So when we get told, “You can’t say that,” it affects us deep down.
One response is to say, “Tough!” But we progress as a society by agreeing acceptable things that can be said about each other. Do we seriously hanker after an age when casual racial slurs were part of life? Or when women producers in the BBC were referred to generically (as they were by a cameraman I worked with in my early career) as “tarts”?
I’d be happy to note that such language, and the thinking behind it, is dead. Only it isn’t. It’s fading, but more slowly than some might want. And perhaps one of the lessons of last year is that efforts to close down politics through closing down language are liable to blow up in people’s faces. Although we celebrate the end of the age of deference in many areas of life, so-called progressive people often demand huge and continuing deference in the area of language. When they say, “You can’t say that,” the masses are supposed to button their lips.
I came across it myself on the Today programme a few months ago in an exchange with Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which encourages women to record sexism and fight for equality. In a discussion about Donald Trump’s infamous – and sexist – Hollywood Access tape in which he talks about grabbing women and being able to because he is a star, I tried to suggest that the language might still have a place in people’s lives even if the action (the assault) was unacceptable. Would it not be wise to make a distinction?
Cue horror: Ms Bates took to The Guardian to complain, and I was the subject of a storm of abuse on Twitter. Esquire magazine, from the magnificent heights of the metrosexual progressive firmament, declared that a “clueless radio host” had been put in his place.
Well, that’s a view. But one of the wisest commentaries on Trump was that his enemies took him literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. To lots of Americans his talk about sex was just talk. Many American women regarded it as a minor indiscretion.
And in their millions they voted for him. Perhaps it would have come as less of a surprise if we had noticed that the language he used would attract a primal scream from many voters who were sick of being told that they were (as Hillary Clinton put it) “deplorables”.
One of the most foolish things asked about Trump was how could he represent working people when he was himself a billionaire. You only had to listen to him. He spoke as they spoke. Of course he is part of the elite, but not the bossy elite, like Clinton.
When voters in the “Rust Belt” states were asked to decide between a woman who chose her words with painful care and a man who did not, they chose the man who did not. He seemed gung-ho and fearsomely honest; she seemed mealy-mouthed and dissembling. Sometimes he was the liar and she was the truth-teller, but because of the language they used those roles were reversed in people’s minds.
One place where language is traditionally used most carefully is diplomacy, and some are wondering whether a year of dangerous language might be accompanied by dangerous deeds. It could be. But when Donald Trump takes a phone call from the Taiwanese leader and upsets the Chinese, you could argue that this was simply plain dealing. Perhaps our habitual modern daintiness with language and action has confused everyone, friend and foe. If Trump sticks to a new bluntness, who’s to say it’s a backward step?
Whatever happens in 2017, perhaps those we often call populists (a loaded word itself) are simply, well, popular, because of how they say things as much as the actual substance of their politics. With Donald Trump in the White House, we are about to find out.