Language and millenialism are not easy. In fact, in this world where we must be careful about correctness, am I even millenial? Maybe I’m pre-millenial (I’m a child of the 80s) or post-millenial (as some kind of matter of personal stance on various theories and approaches).
In any case, it is right that we are careful about language. It is powerful. It can upset, offend, include, exclude or – ideally – delight. At the same time, we must be careful not to view the outcome of what is said de-contextualised from the context of intention and feeling. What do we do when something is said with compassion or lack of understanding yet results in offence?
For example, when the ‘breast in bed seven’, is announced in the cancer ward handover, this is perhaps less an intentional dehumanisation of a vulnerable and suffering individual than a possible refusal to accept that this dying soul is someone’s mother. It is a survival tactic to look strong and provide good care. Humanisation of all of our patients might leave us overloaded with sadness, unable to seem strong and able to reassure. We look after Brenda or Beverley with compassion precisely because she is the ‘breast in bed seven,’ and not because – in five years’ time – she might be our own mother. The purposeful reduction of her self is our bizarre way of trying to respect her selfhood.
My question, then, is how we create conditions for discussion that support those who aim not to offend (but, like all of us, sometimes do), from those who are malicious. And it is this malice I have seen on holiday. Malice seems, for me, to be related less to linguistic use or misuse and more to neocapitalist entitlement. Only yesterday I witnessed a tourist turn to a member of hotel staff, click his fingers, and demand instant remidation of his own mistake (booking a room smaller than he expected) in the rudest of terms. Had we been in Uganda rather than Turkey, this would have been overt racism. ‘I only have three days to relax… you sort this now.’ I am stunned at the hypocrisy of someone who has time and money to relax treating someone who is working long hours for limited pay as if they are a piece of subservient dirt. Yet many simply see this as someone claiming their monetary entitlement. There is no question: this is unacceptable.
I am reminded of the Thomas Cook rep checking passengers into Banjul airport in March for their flight home to Birmingham. A Welshman in his early twenties is positively orgiastic with glee as he demands an older member of Gambian airport staff weighs bags (in order to demand fees from passengers) whilst he himself does nothing. ‘Weigh it now,’ he says, and then (after I remove some items), ‘weigh it again,’ clicking his fingers. He’s mislabelled nobody. He’s used his White Western status as a veil through which to carry out overt racism disguised as management.
The same member of Thomas Cook staff left me crying on an airport floor after he stood over me abusing his position of (limited power) to claim his rudenes and mistreatement were a myth of my imagination and my resulting anxiety as his misbehviour made me ‘unfit to fly.’ The Gambian staff, who in my honest opinion should go on strike, accept this neocapitalist colonialism with grace, exchanging covert smiles at each other and I, and referring to the Thomas Cook man as ‘crazy’.
Eventually he comes over and whines, smiling: ‘have we calmed down now?’ I walk right past him to the Gambian member of check-in staff: ‘I would like to go home, but I refuse to speak to this horrible bully.’ He does everything in his power to prevent me from being issued with a boarding pass, even claiming that ‘I am the manager, you have to speak to me,’ yet somehow the pass is issued by his colleague and I find myself en-route home. The kinder airborne Thomas Cook staff encourage me to lodge a formal complaint. In the end, having minimal confidence to do anything about it, I do nothing until writing this now.
The point of this blog post, however, was not to publicly complain about Thomas Cook. It was rather to demonstrate that ‘the breast in bed seven’ is not always a dehumanising slur. But non-racist language delivered by an entitled white-man with a snarling face is still racism. And, to quote a very wise friend of mine, ‘life is not complicated … we make it complicated.’ We would do well to educate and support those who offend by mistake. We also must do better to call out those who offend by intention yet do not use offensive language. This is essentially less a matter of definition (though this is important) but more a matter of feeling (we KNOW in our hearts and stomachs when we see something malicious).