Language evolves. It’s a fact of communication; words twist, change and merge, they take on new meanings and become adopted by different groups. Gay, surf, wicked, computer, all words used by our forebears in very different ways. Heck, thirty years ago, who’d’ve thought that ‘Google’ could mean ‘search’?
How we use words is important. They often shape our actions, shape how we see others and yes, how we see their rights.
An example: go online, find a post or a video in which a woman says something even vaguely feminist, or even simply reasonable. Now look below the line and wait for the first rape threat. When the hell did such a heinous crime develop its own culture of jokes and attitudes and badly written ebooks? And what impact does that have on reporting rape, on the lives of rape survivors, on a medium where threats of violence and sexual assault are commonplace?
Maybe we should have seen this coming, at least since not being racist ended up being described as “political correctness gone mad” and the idea that employers shouldn’t accidentally kill their workforce is sneeringly described as “health and safety” (cue eye roll).
All this has an effect on human rights. Okay, maybe in the civilised west we’re not herding people into concentration camps at the moment, but the language we use eats away at the lives of those around us: female journalists and activists leaving Twitter because of no effective way to report people threatening to blow up their houses? Immigrants seeing themselves described in newspapers as a flood, a tide eroding the very foundations of the country? “That’s gay” has become a synonym for “that’s stupid”, so how does that impact the phrase “they’re gay”?
In the UK, even ‘human rights’ is subject to this. Linked by politicians and media to frivolous law suits, the government is talking about repealing the Human Rights Act. The message given is that human rights legislation protects terrorists, not, for instance, hard working families. Now don’t get me wrong, we should always be considering if human rights legislation is fit for purpose, but watch the language used. Human rights aren’t trivial. Human rights aren’t frivolous. And we should rage against language that turns rape into entertainment and individuals as somehow less human than ourselves. Because language can inspire action, and sometimes we deny the humanity of others through the very words we use.