The resignation of Andrew Mitchell on Friday has made me think about the emotive nature of language. When the former Chief Whip allegedly insulted the police officers blocking his exit from Downing Street by calling them ‘plebs’, it is unlikely that he intended to call them free Roman citizens. He might instead have meant the more modern usage which is ‘someone considered unsophisticated or uncultured’, if indeed he had thought that carefully about his choice of words at all. What was not at the forefront of his mind on that fateful afternoon was the fact that his vocabulary said a lot more about him that it did about the policemen in question.
The use of the word ‘plebs’ screams privilege from the rooftops and illustrates that a first rate classical education at Rugby School and Cambridge University never goes unnoticed. Norman Tebbitt for one took note and made his views public in the Observer. The fact that Andrew Mitchell also used the word f***ing is singularly less remarkable because this robust Anglo Saxon term is used equally across the classes. Personally I have no problem with Mitchell’s education, but I do take issue with his careless use of words.
In this particular instance, a man at the forefront of politics would do well to remember, while he rants at public servants, that he represents a coalition government that is trying to live down accusations that many of its front bench are ‘unfeeling toffs’. It was therefore all the more unfortunate that he compounded his error of judgement by also coining the expression ‘moron’. Politicians, and all those who communicate for a living beware: our choice of words is one of the few things in life that is totally within our control and therefore each and every selection should be made with the utmost care.
Historically, words tell us more about the attitudes of the time than the people or things they were describing. It was regarded as totally acceptable in 1950’s London to have signs outside boarding houses stating “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs”. The lumping together of these three groups tells us about the society in which they lived, not about the people themselves. As early as 1923, German Marxists established the forerunner of the political correctness movement, believing that by changing the way people speak, their thought patterns could also be changed. There is certainly some truth in this and most of us would squirm today if we heard anachronistic expressions referring to racial, sexual or mental differences.
Unfortunately, there are well documented examples of political correctness that have, as they say, ‘gone mad’. A favourite of mine is an incident when a British recruitment firm advertised for a ‘reliable hardworking applicant’ but had their advert rejected by the local Job Centre as being potentially offensive to unreliable lazy people.
Back to Andrew Mitchell, however, and the fact that a distinguished thirty year career was, as his staunch defender Michael Gove says, “effaced at a stroke by seven seconds of unacceptable but very human exasperation.” It certainly shows the power of words and that in spite of support from Gove and David Cameron, Mitchell was unable to live long politically having used the p**b word and the m***n word without due care and attention.