Those in direst need of support deserve more than euphemisms to alleviate their plight?Special needs children learning to write. Photograph: Don Tonge/Alamy
Your guard should go up when you are told that the politically correct policing of speech is nothing more than an insistence on good manners. Take a cool look at those who think it their business to tell you what to say and write. More often than not, you will find yourself staring at small-time autocrats with a control fetish. Activists who scour the Twitter accounts of the objects of their hatred, and squeal with inquisitorial delight when they find “problematic” language they can use to build a case for the prosecution, can be called many things – “polite” is not one of them.
And yet and but and for all that, the unashamed racism of respectable society that was commonplace 40 years ago has nearly vanished from mainstream discourse – in public at least. The jokes about breasts and nancy boys, the Benny Hills and John Inmans, once a staple of TV comedy, have gone too and good riddance to them. However bad misogyny, racism and homophobia are, they are at least under attack.
A better justification for PC restraints on language than an appeal to good manners is that talking of gender, sexuality and race as if they were disabilities denies individual autonomy on arbitrary grounds and perpetuates unearned privilege. More difficult to justify is the willingness of that same PC society to move on and rule that it is wrong to talk about disability as if it is a disability. As anyone who writes on the subject knows, it has reclassified mild descriptions as insults and replaced them with warm, fuzzy words that so diminish the disadvantaged that the casual listener might think they barely exist.
Announcing its own good intentions, the government has adopted a disability speech code. The state is not railing against crude insults – “cretin”, for instance – but words that until a few years ago seemed mild. Its guide to “inclusive language” instructs you not to say “the disabled” but “disabled people”; not “fits, spells or attacks” but “seizures”; not “mental handicap” but “learning disability”.
What is gained by this purging of the dictionary and, more to the point, what is lost? This newspaper’s stylebook bristles with enough prohibitions to silence a monastic order. “We aim to use positive language about disability, avoiding outdated terms that stereotype or stigmatise,” it explains. Why saying “learning disability” instead of “mental handicap” removes stigma is a question no one can answer. Optimists might say that the bowdlerisation reflects modern society’s compassion towards people with disabilities. Unfortunately, there would not be a word of truth in it if they did. Britain is showing that political correctness and the neglect of people in need can coexist quite happily. For it is easier to remove state support if you describe disabilities in a sing-song voice so soft and light you make them sound as if they are not disabilities at all.
To put the same thought another way: if the old language around disability could be cruel to be kind, the new language is kind to be cruel.
Councils are the main providers of care and they have had their central government funding halved since 2010. The National Autistic Society points to bleak figures showing that the number of appeals against councils that were failing to provide adequate provision for children with special needs had grown by 27% since austerity began. Parents win 91% of appeals, a figure that is so extraordinarily high it suggests councils are gaming the system in the hope that most parents won’t appeal against unjust decisions. While one should have every sympathy for local authorities that must do the government’s dirty work for it, they are also guilty of introducing a class bias into care. An articulate middle-class family can fight and, after struggling through, have a fair chance of winning an appeal. A single mother stuck in a tower block will be less likely to know that the council has unjustly denied care to her autistic child. Even if she does, she may well not have the means to do anything about it.
Local authority officers tell me they worry about schools that speak in the sweetest tones about how “special” children with special needs are. And then exclude them for fear they will drag down their rankings in exam league tables. Beyond the school gates, the 2010s have been a disastrous decade. The National Audit Office damned the universal credit system for its failure to protect the mentally vulnerable. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered that the sanctions the Tories use to attack benefit claimants fell hardest on people with mental and physical handicaps, who were not fit for work, whatever the state said to the contrary. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s cumulative impact assessment shows that families with a disabled adult and a disabled child will lose £5,500 a year by 2022 as a result of tax and benefit changes. Prejudice against mental illness, and the brute political reality that few people with autism, schizophrenia or any other serious condition vote, has made attacks on them a painless political hit.
Anyone expecting more from the promotion of “inclusive language” doesn’t know their history. “Cretin”, a word so frowned on now it is almost banned, was in its original usage kindly meant. It came from a French dialect word for “Christian”, to remind listeners that the afflicted were God’s creatures, who deserved their sympathy. Cretin changed its meaning because of prejudice against people with disabilities. The same fate awaits today’s politically correct language. Linguistic police officers will one day have to find new euphemisms to replace 2018’s approved words, as they become insults too.
It’s always been the case that changing language is a poor and easy substitute for changing the world. We should tackle prejudice and care for its victims. Britain is doing neither while pretending it is doing both. It prefers to play word games instead.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
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