You may well be familiar with the apocryphal story of King Canute, who put his throne on the edge of the sea and commanded the tides not to wet his feet – only for the sea to ignore him and wet him anyway.
Various versions of the story exist but according to one he was trying to demonstrate to his courtiers that his power was limited and no amount of shouting at the sea would stop it moving.
This story popped into my head reading about Oxfam’s new guide to inclusive language. There appears to be some outrage about ‘wokeness gone mad’.
The charity’s explanation that language needs to change according to how our understanding of the world has changed has ruffled some feathers, to put it mildly.
There are some things that never change – the need for people to feel and give love to one another, their desire to help their fellow humans and, less positively, the desire of some to hang on to structures of power which benefit them, even if they oppress others.
But almost everything else changes. The climate, society, politics and technology, to name but a few.
The poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is famous for saying: “When you know better, do better.”
When I think about my attitudes and behaviours when I was younger and compare them to now, I can see how much I have changed.
Things that I accepted unquestioningly when I was young, I no longer do.
Language has always been used to diminish people, to take away their voice and agency. I just think about the words used to describe me when I was a young woman: feisty, airhead, bossy, bitchy – I even used some of them myself to describe other women.
I now understand that that language demeaned me, made me feel weaker and of less value than the men around me, and did so to other women too.
Gay people, trans people, excluded people and other minoritised groups have existed pretty much since humans have – and have always experienced discrimination and prejudice.
It’s just that now we understand better about their experiences and decent-minded folk no longer expect people to just endure it – we advocate for change. And part of that is changing how we use language.
Even our dictionaries change as the words we use change – and Oxfam has perfectly understood that using a more inclusive sort of language is a driver for change in behaviour and attitudes.
The charity is actively listening to people who have experienced exclusion, poverty and powerlessness, and the guidance is to ensure it is an organisation of and for them. And that is what we should all be doing.
The world isn’t perfect – but it’s definitely not going to get better by us clinging on to the past and angrily protesting that it was all better then.
It wasn’t for the vast majority of people in the world. Or here at home. It might have been simpler – but it sure as hell wasn’t better.
Shouting angrily about how society, and with it language, is changing and trying to prevent it is very Canutian.
It’s like shouting at the tide and telling it to stop. Be the tide and keep moving.
This article was originally published on the Third Sector website.