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General Secretary Blog: The power of language.


I started this blog a few weeks ago with the intention of marking Black History Month. As I am no historian, I wanted to avoid researching remarkable figures and speaking about them - as if an expert - as I knew this would be insincere. My interest in history has consistently been about the lived experiences of the ordinary people of the past (and present) who, in my view are just as instrumental in shaping our present and future as those people gracing our history books.

As an alternative, I thought I would share some reflections on language. I’m a little more confident in this area as a feminist, social constructionist and past English teacher – indeed, my teacher training included modules on critical language awareness (a topic which created some turmoil when I introduced a lesson around maps and the positioning of continents).

Language shapes our experience, as any social constructionist or proponent of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will tell you. It is this assertion, and the dangers inherent within it, which underpins the dystopian society of George Orwell’s 1984. In that book, a whole new language, Newspeak, is in the process of being implemented by the dictatorial regime, Ingsoc. "
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible." Orwell, 1949/1987, p.343

While I don’t think a new language is currently being crafted, certain words do seem to be under attack – and are being weaponised – within the media and in politics.

One such word is woke, which I only recently learned hails from African-American usage and specifically means ‘aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality’ . Why such an attitude should be impugned is beyond me. And yet, it has been described as ‘against the few, the privileged woke minority with their luxury beliefs who wield influence out of proportion to their numbers.’ Really?

It was at this point in my writing that the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine was at first escalated by the horrific attacks perpetrated by Hamas on Israel and then further escalated by Israel’s response, one which is now being described as involving ‘clear violations of international humanitarian law’.

Words suddenly felt almost as incendiary as the rockets and bullets destroying people’s lives. In the UK, exponential rises in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents marked the capacity of language to incite anger, pain and hatred – in what was said as well as what was not.

I still feel paralysed by the power that words can have – what might be unleashed by what I feel unable (or not brave enough) to say. Can I therefore really claim that aspirational adjective, woke?

I instead think about the power of a gesture – the volumes told by a handshake. And I wonder what we, as human beings as well as educational psychologists, can do.






"First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me"


Pastor Martin Niemӧller

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