Mind your language

The shifting language of shame

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

As his tweed jacket flapped open to one side of his stomach, my husband stood up unsteadily and arched his arm, jabbing his finger towards me and chanting: ‘Shame on you! Shame on you!’

It didn’t work, because I’ve been living with him so long that, as Berowne says in Love’s Labour’s Lost, ‘We are shame-proof’. His little performance was in response to some news item about Tell the Truth, a spin-off of Extinction Rebellion. Its members don’t actually want journalists to tell the truth, but to do as they say. Their first ‘demand’ is that the climate crisis ‘must be front-page news every single day’. They also demand we change our language. So out goes global warming, in comes global heating; instead of natural gas we must say dirty gas. ‘Do not,’ they command, ‘print the opinion of writers who cast doubt on the scientific consensus.’

It is preposterous nonsense, if threatening. It’s the bonfire of the Agas, for sure. But it only attempts what has been achieved elsewhere by changing language. Every month or so a new word becomes the approved term for some kind of minority. I didn’t like BAME, but that doesn’t matter, because it is on its way out already. Speakers of approved language have begun to talk of brown people, which sounds no better to me than yellow people, or red ones.

The most effective weapon in cultural warfare is to find a form of words that convicts others without the need for evidence or a trial. Ideal for this purpose is the verb call out. In America since the 1980s it has meant ‘identify someone acting in an unacceptable manner’. The unacceptable behaviour doesn’t have to be intentional. Unconscious bias training is mandatory for all.

Thus the cry ‘Shame on you!’ is like shouting ‘Stop, thief!’ or ‘Witch!’ It discovers you as the enemy. In 1953, Milton Singer distinguished Guilt societies (in the West) from Shame societies (in less developed parts). Today even ‘doing the right thing’ (now a cliché, used when instructing government ministers to do what a pressure group wants) is proposed as the only alternative to public shaming. Conscience seems not to come into it. Telling the truth becomes just obeying orders.

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