So Toxic It's Toxique!

Language is powerful and we must pay attention to how it's being used and when it's being misused.

Author: Mark Humble

Following on from the scandal at Whorlton Hall where people with a learning disability were systematically abused, there has been much discussion about the idea of ‘toxic cultures’ and ‘closed cultures’. In short, the idea that there are features of a culture or working environment that make it easier to mistreat and harm people. 

Commonly, some of these features include anywhere there is the use of force, manipulation, or threats to make people do what they don’t want to do or simply comply. Other features include the physical isolation of the environment, a closed staff group, people living with people they haven’t chosen to live with or indeed people living where they don’t want to.

These are very overt and clear indicators of a possible toxic culture.

I however have a very simple way of checking if a toxic culture might exist, listen to the words people use to describe the people they work with. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as at Whorlton Hall, where a group of staff called themselves the ‘c$&t's club’.

Listen out for the terms like CYP, LD, MH, LDA, SEND, SEN, PD, PMLD any acronyms that are used to describe people. 

Can we get any less person centred than referring to someone as a set of initials?

Some cultures defend the use of these terms along the lines of “I would never say that in front of a person or their family” or  “we only use that as a shorthand in internal meetings”. If people are happy to use depersonalising terminology in private or in certain contexts, I think that says something very powerful about the culture in which they operate.

This isn’t about stopping free speech it's about using language that humanises and reminds us of and others about an individual's humanity, particularly for a group of people who regularly have their human rights and often legal rights ignored and are seen as less than human.

George Orwell understood the relationship between language and thought and how control over the former permits control over the latter.In his essay Politics and the English Language he writes: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” and in his novel 1984, the idea of ‘Newspeak’ was an attempt to limit language to such an extent that it allowed no protest, the idea of how the language we use reflects how we think is I think a compelling one. So positive language reflects positive thinking.

I know it's not as simple as that and there is a lot more to toxic cultures than using acronyms to describe people, however in being vigilant to and aware of the language being used to describe people we can be vigilant to the potential of a toxic culture; it should at least get the ‘Spidey sense’ tingling.

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. So Toxic It's Toxique © Mark Humble 2024.

Article | 22.01.24

Deinstitutionalisation, intellectual disabilities, England, Article

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