Technology | Are we entering the time of Newspeak?

Are we entering the time of Newspeak?

In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, the Government created the controlled language of Newspeak. Newspeak eliminated undesirable words and stripped the remaining words of secondary meanings.

In the real-world, workplaces have created their own controlled languages. Jargon is taking over, especially with technology. Another area where controlled language is prevalent is diversity and inclusion. Organisations decree the use of the right terms and punish the use of wrong words. They say it’s to increase harmony; to support diverse workforces. But as more words become taboo, how do we remember what to say?

To build more inclusive workplaces we need to step back. Engaging in doublespeak to avoid causing diversity related offence isn’t inclusive. It means we waste time trying to understand what people are referring to, rather than what they’re actually saying.

British English isn’t standardised, with regional, age and cultural differences. Using inclusive language doesn’t mean removing potentially offensive terms and decreeing set naming conventions. It requires an understanding of the audience, plain English and the elimination of labels.

Elimination of Labels

It’s human nature to group things, and D&I practitioners are amongst the worst for grouping people! We’ve now started using terms like “population” to refer to groups with certain characteristics. This misses the point that no two people are the same, and just because someone can be grouped by one characteristic doesn’t mean they share anything else with the wider group.

This means we have to move away from defining groups by a characteristic (e.g. disabled people) towards incorporating that characteristic into a descriptor (people with disabilities).

Literature is one of the main sources of new language. Shakespeare is well known for creating new words, and George Orwell continued this tradition. Now the sharing of ideas online is speeding up linguistic change.

Online forums including Tumblr and Twitter are at the heart of distributing new language. The online trans community is one of the biggest sources of new vocabulary.

Transsexual is now seen as unacceptable, despite being the legal term in the Equality Act 2010. Terminology has in the last eight years moved on to Transgender, and now has changed again, with trans and cis becoming the new terminology.

Using the correct terminology when the politically correct wording changes so often is difficult for those who are involved in D&I. As well as for those wanting to learn more and enter the D&I space.
Our fear of using the wrong words inhibits our ability to learn more about others. Fear of using the wrong words has other effects. It contributes to the shutting down of debate, and risks alienating potential allies of diverse groups.

For smaller employers it means that recruiting a homogenous workforce is perceived as safer than having a diverse one.

There is no need for Newspeak in a language as rich and varied as English. Creating a taboo around language results in a taboo around the thing it refers to. We build inclusive workplaces by understanding one another, not being afraid to seek knowledge and respecting our colleagues. This means not being afraid to challenge bad behaviour and language, but also tackling unknowing behaviour and language with education, not punishment.

Euphemisms and mistakes occur due to fear and uncertainty. Organisations have a responsibility to all their employees to drive inclusion and understanding. The bureaucratic Newspeak approach is driving division rather than healing it.

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