On the DCA’s #WordsAtWork campaign

respectDiversity Council Australia’s #WordsAtWork campaign copped a lot of flak last week, not all of it from the usual suspects, and not all of it unjustified. Certainly Julie Bishop’s characterisation of it as an attack on free speech was way over the top – reminiscent of George Brandis at his most self-satirising – and the broadsides from the anti-PC brigade were as noisy and repetitive and insubstantial as ever. Nevertheless, there is something quite wrongheaded about the DCA’s campaign. ‘Building inclusion through the power of words’ is its catchline. It’s also its problem.

Reaction to the #WordsAtWork campaign, which attempts to highlight the role of language in entrenching disadvantage and marginalisation in the workplace, has come to focus in particular on the word ‘guys’ – a fairly innocuous noun, one might think, but one DCA Chairman and Australian of the Year David Morrison urges us not to use on account of its gendered connotations. ‘I have now removed that from my lexicon’, said Morrison in an interview with the ABC. It was this, rather humourless, utterance, and not the jokey video put together by the DCA, that propelled #WordsAtWork into the popular consciousness.

In one sense, the reaction was a little unfair. ‘Guys’, after all, is just a poor example of a more serious point about prejudice and language – one that shows that Morrison, who in his final year as Lieutenant General spectacularly called out misogyny in the Australian Armed Forces, is perhaps not as in touch with modern usage as he might be. As many people have pointed out, the word is now effectively gender-neutral; as a synonym for ‘boys’ – as in ‘guys and dolls’ – it belongs to the past, or to the ironic present. To that extent, the word is a distraction; it would be possible for Morrison and the DCA to concede that point and still to carry their larger one: that language has the power to incubate prejudice.

But in another sense ‘guys’ reveals the confusion at the heart of the DCA’s campaign. For it is the fact that the word has changed its meaning that exposes the futility of attempting to police language in this crude and condescending manner. ‘Guys’ has changed its meaning, yes. But all words change their meanings over time and, indeed, from context to context. Those who believe that we can combat prejudice by changing the way we describe each other are always in danger of missing this point, and of treating language as a panacea. Thus the so-called ‘euphemism treadmill’, the process by which offensive words are replaced with less offensive ones, which in time become offensive themselves and have to be replaced in their turn. The point is that prejudice outlasts the adoption of new terminology, every time.

This is not to say that words do not wound, or that we shouldn’t watch our language; they do, and we should. It is simply to challenge the postmodern assumption that words ‘create’ reality and that reality can, by extension, be changed through the adoption of new terminology. In the days when ‘political correctness’ was definable as something more specific than ‘stuff Donald Trump doesn’t like’ this was its great absurdity: its attempt to marry identity politics with a philosophical view of language as constitutive of reality. No, this didn’t lead to ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’ – that was an invention of the rightwing press. But it has led to the widespread adoption of ‘trigger warnings’ on many US university campuses, which is scarcely less ridiculous.

Both language and life are much messier than David Morrison and the DCA allow. A word in one context can be offensive or hurtful, while the same word in another context can be harmless, affectionate, silly, a joke. If the DCA had limited itself to saying that we should respect other in the workplace, they’d have been criticised for nothing more than stating the obvious. Instead, they chose to make language the focus and in doing so managed both to trivialise prejudice and (potentially) make the modern workplace a more joyless, bureaucratic and ridiculous place than, for many Australians, it already is.