Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Power of Words

It is a wry coincidence that the eventual conviction of two men in the Stephen Lawrence murder case rightly dominates the front pages whilst the Luis Suarez saga is splashed all over the back pages. Obviously the two incidents are nothing like comparable, but what their confluence does demonstrate is that, whatever the truth behind Suarez's motivation, his words are the thin end of a very nasty wedge.

Considering that footballers can get banned for three games for pretty much breaking an opponent's bones, an eight match suspension for alleged comments to a member of the other team might at first glance seem excessive. When the furore over the sexist comments of ex-Sky Sports duo Richard Keys and Andy Gray kicked off (pardon the pun) last year, the consensus amongst the people at Appetite, where I then worked, was "it's political correctness gone mad." Much of the office banter was essentially offensive, but was all light-heartedly meant, so no harm done eh? I did argue the thin-end-of-the-wedge case at the time, but it's hard to connect "locker room bravado" with domestic violence, prostitution or any of the darker shades of chauvinism from the comfort of a West End office.

More surprisingly, it was a similar story, at a different company, when the treatment of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother was in the news five years ago. Now apart from suggesting that the design industry isn't a particularly diverse one, what this does demonstrate is that many people are blissfully unaware of the tremendous power of words. Today's throwaway insult is tomorrow's newspaper headline. It's insidious. It isn't far from there to the playground, the workplace. And if a word is repeated often enough it acquires emotional resonance, and what began as a throwaway remark becomes something much more harmful.

The design business is understandably obsessed with the power of the image, but it's hardly unique, so whatever you do and wherever you work, it is worth being aware of the potency of language. As the race for the White House gets underway once more, who can forget the most powerful tools in the kit that swept Obama to power unforgettably in 2008? Those three little words - Yes. We. Can.

Words beget attitudes, and attitudes beget behaviour. That is why it is right to condemn and even punish those who use words to abuse.


At 10:44 PM GMT , Anonymous James E said...

Yes, well said. Although in the case of behaviour like Keys and Gray, I don't think it was the thin end of the wedge but a problem in itself. It's not just that it plays a part in a broader culture that doesn't properly punish rape or domestic violence - although that is true - but it sends a clear message to every woman in that workplace: "This is not your space. You have no authority here. You cannot hope to have authority here. If you get above your station we will cut you down to size." And this is true regardless of whether Keys and Gray really do hate women or whether they thought it was just harmless banter.


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