Language fascinates, particularly the manner in which it can be used as a political and cultural tool, thus campaigners rejected fighting for ‘homosexual marriage’, chose instead to struggle for ‘same sex marriage’ and ended up campaigning for ‘marriage equality’. Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with equality but never mind that, changing the terms of the debate carried the implied assumption that only a Neanderthal could be against equality. It worked.
It is refreshing to read of those who argue from the other side, not as is usually pointed out that political correctness is corrupting language but that ‘capitalism is altering our language’ in sneaky ways which must be resisted. Owen Hatherly who writes primarily on architecture and culture for the Guardian, Socialist Worker and Socialist Review assures us that ‘According to a report by researchers at the University of Los Angeles English has become a peculiarly capitalist language – though they don’t quite put it like that.’
They may not put it like that but Hatherly has no qualms about doing so. He considers words such as ‘unique’, ‘individual, ‘self,’ and ‘choose’ to be ‘particularly acquisitive words’. Hatherly thinks such words and those like them signify avarice and rapaciousness, whilst most of us who are not bien pensant Marxists would consider them to have connotations of empowerment and potentiality. But then Marxists love the masses, its just people they can’t stand.
Hatherly would have us employ the word ‘users’ rather than ‘consumers’ on the grounds that when we consume what industry provides for us we do so ‘unthinkingly’. He approvingly quotes Welsh socialist Raymond Williams who rejected ‘consumer’ and argued for ‘user’ on the grounds that ‘we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgements – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system’. (It is difficult to credit that Williams was writing about the same time that George Orwell was pleading for the use of clear English in political writing).
We who ‘unthinkingly’ talk of consumers clearly need the truly enlightened and unrelenting class warrior to ‘reveal the pernicious assumptions behind these professedly innocuous words’. Yet Hatherly seems blithely unconscious of the fact that if ‘user’ involves general human judgements surely ‘choose’ equally involves general human judgements.
This view of language is of a piece with Hatherly’s general outlook. According to Hatherly in a previous Guardian piece, ‘squats, long the major laboratory of experiments in group living’ are a good thing and lead us to living in communes, supposedly another good thing. In his passion for the collective and antipathy to the individual Hatherly is bewildered that, ‘For some reason, it is still considered common sense for housing, irrespective of its quality, to be as private as possible.’ He views wanting a certain amount of privacy and individual space as ‘insularity’ an unhealthy form of obsession.
Hatherly is right about one thing, as has often been pointed out on this blog the language we use reveals something not just about the thing we speak of but of our own attitudes and presuppositions. The progressive attitude which sees uniqueness, individuality, self awareness and choice as things to beware of and rejected reveals a set of presuppositions antithetical to human worth.