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  1. The Staggers
20 March 2023

The furore over Oxfam’s “woke” language guide misses the point

The media attack on the charity’s “inclusive” wording forces us to choose between blustering bigotry and preening sanctimony.

By Peter Williams

Top trolling, Oxfam. Short of demanding a ban on common sense, warm beer and Fawlty Towers, it could scarce have done more to endanger blood vessels in the anti-woke faction by publishing its 92-page “inclusive language guide” for staff and contributors. Incorporating sections on “feminist principles for language use” and “race, power and decolonization”, as well as an acknowledgement that “this guide has its origin in English, the language of a colonising nation”, it met with predictable uproar and ridicule from, among others, the Mail, the Telegraph and GB News

These outlets seemed especially exercised by the idea that the gender-neutral “parent” might be preferable to “mother” or “father” in certain contexts, and by advice to avoid terms such as “headquarters” and “field trip” because of their colonial connotations. Suitably damning comments were gathered from, among others, the “gender-critical” campaigners Helen Joyce and Maya Forstater, the Tory MP and muse to Suella Braverman John Hayes, and the Free Speech Union’s Toby Young. Oxfam responded that the guide was intended to be merely that, a guide, and not prescriptive, and would “help authors communicate in a way that is respectful to the diverse range of people with which we work”.  

That may be true, although it still makes treating others with due consideration seem a fraught, recondite pursuit full of minute, hard-to-discern distinctions. To give a small sample, “elderly people” is recommended, but not “seniors”; the unwieldy “migration as a complex phenomenon” is acceptable, but we are told to avoid the simpler “migration challenge” or “refugee crisis”.

[See also: The year woke broke: a brief history of a contested word]

The real problem with the Oxfam document lies not in its tortuous pieties, which are designed for consumption only by its staff and others invested in keeping up with the intersectional Joneses, but its extraordinary self-importance. “Language has the power to reinforce or deconstruct systems of power that maintain poverty, inequality and suffering,” it declares . “Choices in language can empower us to… build a radically better future based on a survivor-centred, intersectional, anti-racist and feminist vision of equality.” Lest the power of its truth-telling overwhelms those of us with imperial mindsets and delicate constitutions, it warns that “the comfort of the status quo must be disrupted in order to dismantle oppressive structures and create pathways to equality. As you read this guide, you may experience discomfort.”  

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Of course, a careful, compassionate choice of words is part of addressing prejudice and inequality, especially, as Oxfam says, when those choices involve listening to others: “we will be led by how the people in question prefer to be referred to”. But ascribing so much power to the particularities of word-choice neglects tone, intent and context. Someone ignorant of the guide and the debates that shaped it could address a room full of the diverse people of which Oxfam speaks and, by virtue of being decent and kind, avoid giving offence. Another could make a speech fully clued up on the same and yet offend all by being pompous, domineering and smug.  

Language is neither progressive nor regressive. It does not move along a line of continuous, consensus-led improvement, nor will it wholly degrade into meaningless relativism. What it does do is change – change being the mess made by the passage of time. It evolves as nature evolves: scruffily, multifariously and incrementally, its infinite variety matching that of the needs and circumstances of the people it serves. This is what gives words their power to disrupt the status quo –they are radically demotic, belonging to everyone and no one. No top-down initiative or prescription, whether from a right-on NGO or a thundering middle-market tabloid, can rob them of that quality. No actor, however powerful, can control or shape the whole. 

Silly episodes such as this serve only to preach to the choir and demand that the rest of us take a side. So, what’s your poison? Blustering bigotry or preening sanctimony? Hell-in-a-handcart harrumphing that asserts man’s inalienable right to unthinkingly offend, or the bracing certitude of knowing that you are among the select few who speak correctly? Or, somewhere in between and with better things to do? 

Either way, I don’t think you should worry. At the risk of sounding romantic, I think people will always find the words they need. The people will decide. 

[See also: A brief history of “woke”: how one word fuelled the culture wars]

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