A Guest Post by Sandra Webster
Now before I start, let me reiterate my dislike of all things Tory. I spent a mis-spent youth booing at them and not in a Father Ted “Down with this sort of thing” way either. Language can be a weapon in the right circumstances and a tool of oppression. That is why I try to be careful when I speak these days, though I am aware we all make mistakes.
Yesterday, Alex Salmond used language against Anna Soubry that I find offensive and demeaning. He called her “demented” then told her to display an example to newer members of the house and uttered “behave yourself woman.” Alex Salmond has been a member of both the Scottish Parliament and Westminster for a long time. He is praised for his eloquence, I think that is why I found the use of his terminology so saddening.
We women are often told to behave, it goes back further to Dickensian days the Tories are so proud of. I remember as a wee girl on a school trip being shown medieval scolds. Horrible metal contraptions that a husband could use to silence his “nagging” wife and a public humiliation. That is one of the images that has stayed with me through the years and taught me the unsaid rule that women should know their place. Over the years, I have heard words and terminology used that is wrong. I wish I had been braver to challenge those who used oppressive language but it is difficult to be the mocking bird. I chose my battles.
I find the use of the word “demented” problematic too. I was one of five children who “demented” my mum. At church we were taught about hell and of course purgatory, where souls were demented for their sins on Earth. It was also used as a psychiatric label, in fact, it still is. We know about conditions such as Senile Dementia which cause so much distress to those living with the illness and those who love them. Maybe Harry Potter and the de mentors have a lot to answer for but it is language out there. I however remember the days when to use the word “Mongol” for someone with Downs Syndrome was acceptable. “Cretin” and “semi cretin” were used to diagnose and describe people’s impairments. I am grateful they are not used any more but I still remember my tears when one of my children was called a “window licker” by a group of young people. That is why we need to challenge any language we find oppressive so it is no longer being deemed as being acceptable.
I don’t have to remind readers of A Thousand Flowers but remember when David Cameron told Angela Eagle to “calm down dear” during an NHS debate? He claimed to be paraphrasing Michael Winner. Do you remember the outrage folk felt at this “sexist remark”? Of course we expect as such from Tories but this is another good reason Alex Salmond should not have used similar language. The bold 56 have been elected by the people of Scotland who want a change, a different way. Things have been shaken up in Westminster, with MPs ordering bread and chips and applauding. This group of SNP MPs are a new hope for Scotland, who want to shake away the cobwebs of the old system, well that includes the use of archaic language and terminology. Part of this is not telling women to behave themselves but to use other words. Of course many of these will also offend but don’t use language like a medieval scold, this is the 21st Century. I urge you to have a look at what Gramsci, Chomsky, Freire and other thinkers have to say about the abuse of language.
The shock for me was that many folk who I know would usually protest still have the kind of thinking that the 56 and Salmond walk on water and will defend his misuse of language as just a colloquialism. They have got bigger things to worry about. Well, small things for me are important and tend to accumulate. I wish the 56 well in their parliamentary journey, we are going to need them but please remember you are here to change things, so sometimes words speak louder than actions. Fighting the Tory cuts and calling them to account is crucial but as you don’t have a majority, the words you use are important. Use your words well, as a weapon against the Tories and the institutional barriers many of us face. Anything else is not enough.