• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Language of officialdom devalues ties with those we love and care for most

I have always been fascinated by the language we use to express our view of everyday life. But it wasn’t until the death of my mother three years ago that I realised how words could be used to diminish our identity and pressure us to adopt new values.

As soon as I heard that my mother had a stroke I went to see her at our local hospital. On arrival, I introduced myself to the nurse with the words, “I’m Frank Furedi, I’m Clara’s son.” The woman looked up at me and said, “You mean you’re her carer.” “No, her son,” I responded. But she was insistent: “No, you are her carer.”

Later one hospital administrator explained to me that they used the word carer because it included all; apparently not every patient has a close relative to look after them.

In Australia the Department of Health and Ageing defines everyone who provides help to an ill or frail person as a carer. On its website it notes that “many carers don’t consider themselves to be carers - they see themselves as just family members”. Outwardly, this is a simple and uncontroversial statement of fact. But when you examine it closer, this statement offers a chilling reminder of who defines your identity. You may think you are family but, according to this administrative formula, you are a carer.

The word carer may be inclusive, but if a special connection between mother and son is transformed into a bureaucratic typology something very important has been lost. The relationship between patients and their family, friends and paid help all involve care but convey fundamentally different meaning to the people concerned.

The tendency to redefine human relations through a vocabulary that corrodes its special, unique and intimate quality is often promoted on the ground of making all of us feel included. The first time I felt ambushed by linguistic policing was in the 1990s when I read a report on how to deal with child abuse in a religious setting. The author, Helen Armstrong, wrote that the church should respond by changing its traditional language. Why? Because “religious language often depends on a positive view of the value and trust placed in fathers, parents and family” and it may offend victims of abuse. The report warned against the use of a language that “represents God as father or as protector”, and “the range of ‘family’ language used in religious thinking”.

The implication of Armstrong’s statement was that the positive valuation of the family discriminated against the victims of abuse and therefore a new language was now mandatory. If the celebration of the family is seen as troubling to those who have had negative experiences with their parents, what intimate relationship can be unashamedly avowed? Certainly not that of husband and wife. As the Flinders University’s guide to using inclusive language explains: “Language that reinforces the assumption that all personal relationships are exclusively heterosexual denies the lived realities of same-sex couples.” Accordingly, it advises using the term partner instead of wife or husband.

Like carer, the term partner has the advantage of homogenising every relationship, eroding their distinction and turning it into an inoffensive generic formula. Insisting that I was my mum’s son was proof of my emotional illiteracy. But to refuse to be called partner and to actually embrace discriminatory appellation such as husband or wife is a marker of gross insensitivity. Better that you call your wife a spouse. And it is now official. Those applying for a visa to migrate to Australia are told by www.australia-migration.com that “if you are married, then you apply for the spouse visa”. It helpfully informs that spouse is “the Australian husband or wife”.

Thankfully, you can still acknowledge that you are married. What is at issue is who you are married to. Numerous advocates of same-sex marriage argue that the association of marriage between a husband and wife is an expression of discriminatory prejudice. So a few years ago a submission by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Resource Centre to the inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009 insisted that references to wife and husband should be removed from section 45(2) of the act. This submission also took exception to the “gendered” term “man and women” and opted for the term “union of two people”.

Whatever you think of a world where sons are called carers, where lovers are described as partners or where husband and wife are reinvented as spouses or just “two people”, it is a very different place to one where people cultivate their own identity and tradition to determine who they really are.

It is important to understand that the new administratively sanctioned terms are not simply different words that express the same identity or relationship.

When a son is transformed into a carer the defining features of his relationship to his mother become obscured, maybe even lost. When religious organisations are told to use a language that treats the family as no big deal it ceases to serve as an institution that can give spiritual meaning to its members. When marriage is reinterpreted as merely the union of two people or a partnership of spouses, the identity of a husband and wife becomes eroded and loses its symbolic significance.

The words we use really matter, for they shape people’s view of themselves and of their fellow citizens. In an open, tolerant society, people possess the freedom to choose how they define themselves and others.

Unfortunately, today there are powerful cultural forces that believe they possess the moral authority to decide the words we can use to describe ourselves, our loved ones and our relationships. Language is a far too important dimension of human life to leave to the administrators and experts. We need the courage of conviction and use the words that best express what we are about.

A version of this article was also published on spiked.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.