And going for a pint won’t end global warming, either

Sigh. Nick Cohen’s a friend, and normally I like his stuff, but a piece in the Spectator saying words don’t matter so don’t be so politically correct…no, I can’t like that. I can’t and won’t.

Worry about whether you, or more pertinently anyone you wish to boss about, should say ‘person with special needs’ instead of ‘disabled’ or ‘challenged’ instead of ‘mentally handicapped’ and you will enjoy a righteous glow. You will not do anything, however, to provide health care and support to the mentally and physically handicapped, the old or the sick.

Sigh. No kidding. Nobody thinks it will; that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. You know what else will not do anything to provide health care and support to the mentally and physically handicapped, the old or the sick? This column in the Spectator, or any other column Nick has written, or the books Nick has written. So what? We’re allowed to do things other than or in addition to providing health care and support to the mentally and physically handicapped, the old or the sick.

That kind of observation is worthy of a purple-faced Colonel Blimp cursing the working classes from the snooker room at his club. Don’t be that guy, Nick.

Indeed, your insistence that you can change the world by changing language, and deal with racism or homophobia merely by not offending the feelings of interest groups, is likely to allow real racism and homophobia to flourish unchallenged, and the sick and disadvantaged to continue to suffer from polite neglect.

Nobody does insist that. Don’ This dreck is unworthy of you.




  1. jenBPhillips says

    Urgh. If he had inserted some more “only”s in there he might be technically more correct, although the person that this would actually describe would be no more likely to exist. I wonder what prompted this?

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Yet if we require that people be treated as PEOPLE, rather than as diminished categories or “less than” or “other”, it sets the stage for these people to be able to claim the same rights and protection under the law that other people, the PRIVILEGED people, take for granted.

    It’s important. Everyone should be regarded as a full-fledged person, regardless of the details.

  3. Onamission5 says

    What Cohen fails to grasp is that language is a part of what contributes to systems of discrimination. It isn’t the only aspect, but it is an aspect. Language can be used to dehumanize or to show respect and understanding. Words aren’t harmless. Micro-aggressions add up. Does Cohen really believe that so long as one, say, works at a soup kitchen, that they can call homeless people whatever they wish and it does no harm? Because that is what it seems like he’s arguing for.

  4. rq says

    I think language is one of the first steps to making people aware of how they act towards minority groups. It’s very important to know what words you’re using, because inevitably, they contribute to your settled ways of thinking. Making people reconsider their words is a good way to open their eyes that there may be some changes necessary to their way of thinking. Of course, this is on an individual level (mostly), but doesn’t change begin with individuals?
    Besides, is it really that difficult to be considerate?

  5. opposablethumbs says

    This being someone who works with words professionally, you’d think it would be clear a) that words have meanings and b) that this is how we communicate ideas and attitudes as well as statements of fact and c) that people’s ideas and attitudes inform their lived experience and their actions.

    If a basic minimum of respect ever becomes standard for all and if dehumanising terms for whole social groups ever become a thing of the past it is unlikely to be at a time when society routinely laughs off discrimination, bullying and harassment. Language is not a distraction or a side-track, it’s a reflection which at the same time also forms and informs our thoughts (witness the vast, vast numbers of people who have observed how differently they think and express themselves when using different languages).

    And as rq says, what’s so bloody awful about making the vanishingly tiny effort to be considerate?

  6. says

    I would think that NOT permanently hurting the feelings of the marginalized group would already make the world somewhat better for them.
    You know, they would be, kind of by definition, less hurt.
    Less hurt = good.
    Not perfect, but good.
    And yeah, there’s a lot of straw floating around, as if anybody ever suggested that just because the n-word is no longer used on national TV or because Obama is president that racism is over. The only people I ever heard that last one from are those who would very much like to use discrimatory language without being criticised because they are quite actually discriminatory assholes.

  7. Omar Puhleez says

    Not one of the more powerful articles Cohen has ever written. As Ophelia rightly points out, it is a series of straw man arguments.

    The last quote above (“Indeed, your insistence that you can change the world by changing language…”) implies that language is ALL that Cohen’s targets (whoever they might be) actually want to change. Even if that were true, today’s euphemism is tomorrow’s impolite word, creating a perceived need for a new euphemism. So at least to that extent, political correctness carries within itself the seeds of its own downfall.

  8. Jackie, all dressed in black says

    Let me guess: Nick Cohen is a white cisgenderd man, isn’t he? He’s ‘splaining to the rest of us why we need to shush our insistence that all people deserve to be treated with respect. It isn’t hard to avoid slurs. Treating people with basic respect and curiosity is literally the least we can do. What Cohen is really saying is that he can’t be bothered to even do that. If the only reason he thinks other people speak to one another without using belittling slurs is to feel pleased with themselves, that tells me something about Cohen.

  9. Axxyaan says

    Sure words are not harmless, but often enough a word that is just used as a description is protested again, only because some people have used it while showing their disrespect towards that group. And so we start with the euphemism treadmill. Because whatever new word you will use to give a respectful description of how some people differ from the norm, sooner or later that new word will be used while showing disrespect towards that group and the new word will then be disavowed too. Here in Belgium we have had five such transitions of word use for the disabled during my life time that I’m aware of. And now we are in the proces of banning a word, that was initially introduced to talk respectfully about immigrants.

    I try to be respectful and try to consider people’s feeling when I choose my words. But it can be tiresome when some people seem ready to label you as racist, ablist or whatever just because you were not familiar with the latest round of words that are now seen as disrespectful.

  10. opposablethumbs says

    Of course it can be tiresome and choosing ones words with a modicum of care certainly isn’t infallible or a perfect solution, but it’s a lot more tiresome (and a lot more than just tiresome) to be constantly and casually belittled, reviled or rendered invisible.

    Better to err on the side of being/trying to be considerate.

  11. opposablethumbs says

    Actually that sounded a bit too dismissive, which I didn’t mean it to be; I agree this can be a pain (especially when those doing the dismissing aren’t actually in the vulnerable group in question themselves) but it’s still nothing compared with having to live with the overwhelming mainstream belittlement – so I guess it’s a small price to pay for trying not to belittle.

  12. Axxyaan says

    Sure my pain doesn’t compare to those who are belittled. The problem is that the belittlement often is not in that particular word choice. Those that belittled people with a handicap, did so using whatever word was currently seen as the respectful word. And so the search was repeated for a new word that was not contaminated yet, and lots of energy was spend in setting everyone straight that still used the previous word. In the mean time we have come
    full circle here in Belgium were the new respectful word is the same as it was some 40 years ago.

    I have no problem considering someone’s personal feelings. If the use of a particular word upsets someone I’ll try to avoid it’s use when talking with that person. But it seems often enough the use of the “right” word is all about appearing respectful without bothering about a respectful attitude.

  13. Jackie, all dressed in black says


    How do you know that avoiding slurs has nothing to do with having a respectful attitude? Is that the not the least you can do to demonstrate a respectful attitude?

  14. says


    Those that belittled people with a handicap, did so using whatever word was currently seen as the respectful word.

    Just because the word was “seen” as respectful doesn’t mean it actually was respectful.

    “Retard” and “moron” were just as diminishing and belittling to the people they were applied to then as they are now, because they are predicated on diminishing assumptions, even when used “respectfully”.

    Ultimately, a word is “right” because it has been chosen by the people it is applied to. Respect mean that, if you have to label someone, you honor their requested label.

  15. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    Isn’t there also some good evidence that verbal framing does, in fact, effect the way we treat others? The latest podcast over at RD

    discusses some experiments that showed just that, in regards to the way people view and treat members of an out group. It would not surprise me at all to find that the same thing would apply to racism, sexism, ableism etc. IE- that just referring to a person in a positive (or at least non-negative) way would improve the attitude and treatment of that person. So not using slurs may actually reduce racism/sexism etc., on the whole.

  16. Axxyaan says

    Nathaniel Frein

    Just because the word was “seen” as respectful doesn’t mean it actually was respectful.

    That is correct. In this case it was the word that had been chosen by the people it applied to. You see you can use the word the handicapped prefer being called and still express belittlement to people with a handicap.

    So first the “normal” word in dutch was “gebrekkig” (crippled) and they preferred to be called “gehandicapt” (handicapped) and when “handicapped” had been used enough for belittlement, they preferred to be called “invalide” (invalid). And when “invalid” became associated with belittlement, they preferred to be called “mindervalide” (less-valid) and so it kept going with “andersvalide” (otherwise-valid) and now back to “gehandicapt”.

    And sure I understand the urge of these people for a word that is not associated with abuse and belittlement. But you can’t honestly expect that everyone else is always up to speed about what the latest word preference for this group of people is. Just because someone is using a word that is now disavowed, doesn’t mean that person is disrespectful.

    And once in a while you will encounter a handicapped person, usually someone older, that prefers “gebrekkig” because that is the word that expresses the physical pain he experiences. All those other words are in his eyes just attempts to hide the ugly truth of his condition.

  17. says

    The simple answer, Axxyaan, is to listen when someone tells you what they want to be called and respect that wish.

    Just like you use the name I provided to address me here. That’s the label I’ve taken for myself. Sometimes you screw up and get corrected. The respectful thing to do is allow yourself to be corrected.

  18. Axxyaan says

    @Nathaniel Frein

    Your simple answer is not appropiate a lot of times. What if you are writing an article or addressing a group of people? You can’t listen to them all before delivering. Chances are they don’t all agree with each other. Even when you are talking with just one person, that doesn’t mean there was a good opportunity to bring this subject up and take the time to listen.

    So plenty of times you just have to make a good will natured guess. And sometimes people will jump at you and call you all kinds of things, like bigot, racist, ablist etc, just because you guessed wrong.

  19. Maureen Brian says

    I don’t think this needs to be anywhere near as difficult as you seem to make it, Axxyaan.

    Whenever we meet a new person we learn their name and address them by that. If we meet someone from a very different culture or someone in an official position we check what might be the correct form of address. And if no-one volunteers the information to us we ask.

    Beyond that, if we have to describe people at all it’s done in the vaguest, casual sort of way – he teaches at the high school, he lives in those new houses where the mill yard was, I met him at the Blues Festival. Information, yes. Label, NO!

    It’s a sad fact that we humans only feel the need to label those we wish to distance ourselves from and those it would be too much trouble to understand. You don’t need a generic term for all the people in the world whose bodies or whose minds work differently than yours. Nor do you need a diagnosis for each one: it would be intrusive to ask for that, ever.

    You told the tale of changing terminology as a tale of woe. I saw it as the people most affected by loose language and lazy thinking just staying in control, keeping the others on their toes!

    As Nathaniel Frein says, all you need is the person’s name and your usual openness to social cues.

  20. Axxyaan says

    @Maureen Brian

    It is not about meeting people, it is about mentioning people. If someone is writing a report “about the accessibility of community buildings for the handicapped”. Is he allowed to use this as a title? Or should he use “disabled”? Or does it make a difference if it would be worded as: “for those with a handicap/disability”. Which wording will make it less likely the report will be ignored because everyone is talking about the inappropiate word use in the title?

    Labels are usefull. They allow to give a lot of information with a single word. I use labels because they are descriptive and I use them for those I belong to, for those I want to belong to, for those I don’t belong to and for those I want to distance myself from and for a lot of other things.

    And the problem with keeping the others on their toes, is that those you keep on their toes are mostly those who care. It are those who care, who are kept being anxious about what the proper word is now. The others don’t care and just use whatever they fancy.

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