Tag Archives: Language

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: We are the words we use

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

When I was growing up in Belfast I was oblivious of the ideological and ethical meanings imbedded in the words people used. Rather, what my mind alighted on were accents. When I worked in community education I became so attuned to accents I could tell what part of the city the person I was listening to likely grew up in. Although this was interesting to know, a person’s accent did not tell me anything about their values, worldview or emotional disposition. Words, I came to appreciate, are more important than accents as they reveal a person’s unconscious biases, fears, aspirations, moral code and political ideology.

While I am still interested in accents and what they tell about a person’s background I am by far more interested in the words people use, especially when talking about public affairs. The following selection of phrases used to describe the ecological consequences of our behaviour are, as part of the dominant lexicon, fairly good indicators of what the likely outcome of our unfolding story on Earth will be.

A term used by a wide range of people to describe our warming planet and the accompanying consequences is ‘climate emergency’. The word emergency is commonly used to describe a serious situation that is temporary in nature. For instance, in the aftermath of a serious motor vehicle collision the emergency services are called who will respond with speed and use their skills and specialist equipment to mitigate the harm to all involved. There is no sense of permanency associated with the emergency. Likewise, with the word crisis. A crisis interrupts normalcy and all relevant resources are deployed to deal with it until such times as stability is achieved and a potential catastrophe averted.

To describe the warming of the planet and the consequent extreme weather events which uproot hundreds of millions of people on an annual basis. causing the premature death of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, a temporary situation, as implied by the use of the word emergency, is not only inaccurate but harmful. It is harmful because believing that the rapidly warming planet is a temporary phenomenon does not incentivise us to structure the economy in a way that does least harm to it and its inhabitants.

The words emergency and crisis downplay the serious and in many cases irreversible consequences of global warming. Fiona O’Connor of the UK Met Office tells us that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere means that the planet will continue to warm for another hundred thousand years. This is approximately twenty times the amount of time that has passed since the advent of civilization, which is when our ancestors began to live in a network of urban settlements and developed economic and social hierarchies. Within this time scale the warming of the planet is not temporary but forever.

Other misleading terms which go unexamined are ‘normal society’ and ‘common-sense’. Unlike weights and measurements as determined and overseen by the International Committee for Weights and Measures set up in France in May 1875 there is no authority that specifies what constitutes a normal society and defines what is common-sense.

Yet people in Northern Ireland are commonly heard to say that they want to live in a normal society. I am inclined to think that what they consider a normal society is a Disneyworld / advertisement version of society in which racial discrimination, the unfair treatment of women, economic injustice, widespread poverty, under-funded public services and wanton ecological destruction are rarely depicted. Through repetition, and lack of critical critique, the public mind comes to consider the construct as a depiction of normal society.

When the term ’common-sense’ is used the question to ask is whose common-sense?

When Donald Trump was president of the United States he, his advisors, financiers and supporters, thought that it was common-sense to nullify over 100 pieces of legislation governing air and water quality, wildlife and toxic chemicals which resulted in endangering the life of the entire population. In the Trumpian paradigm the common-sense role of government is to enable the wealthy and the corporations to make and retain as much money as possible without regard to nonhuman nature, economic equality and people’s health.

Being a good ancestor, as in taking care of our biosphere and cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations, is not common-sense for those who think that we are not charged with the welfare of future generations.

The term common-sense is held by its users to mean that which coheres with their preferences and view of the world as if these were supported by empirical evidence. As the term can mean almost anything it is a nonsense term. It is also a derogatory one as it implies that those who do not share your view of the world are not sensible and might in fact be deranged.

Deranged is tagged with another nonsense term that is widely used to demonise and undermine those who are fundamentally opposed to one’s worldview, this is ‘radical ideology’. The implication is that those thought to subscribe to a radical ideology should be on the police watchlist. Radical of course means to get to the root of something. Thus, scholars and investigators of all kinds are radical and whether people are aware of it or not they have an ideology. If, for instance, you think there should be no potholes then this view is part of your ideology and if you want to get to the root cause of why there are potholes then you are radical in this regard.

What we can take from this brief survey is that words and phrases can be used to enlighten, liberate, comfort or confuse, coerce, denigrate and shame. As participants of the ultimate democracy, which is the use of language, we should be mindful of the embedded meaning in the words we and others use. Such mindfulness is critical to nurturing good personal relationships and creating a better society.

– – – – –