The Ethics of Writing

An earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA). The SRA has its own blog with topical peer-reviewed articles by and for researchers. They are also interested in contributions from readers so, if you fancy writing a guest post, you could give them a try.

Most professional writers believe that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write, and understand that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others. We need to become, and remain, aware of this, or we risk misusing our authorly power.

A generation or so ago, English terminology in common use reflected the dominance of men in Western society. A woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant as late as 1978, and UK pubs could refuse to serve women as late as 1982. But at the same time, women had begun to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, in the late 1990s, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served.

There were fierce arguments between those who did not accept that language influences thought (still a contentious hypothesis), and those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo and therefore should be challenged. Some people went further than I thought was sensible, such as by replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that kind of change in some circumstances, but the etymology of ‘history’ suggests it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world.

However, there is some newer terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. For example, in the Guardian a couple of years ago the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. He showed how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (itself an unfashionable term these days), enables some people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone else. Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as somehow poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations. And several chaps of my acquaintance have objected to ‘mansplaining’, not being proponents of the phenomenon that clumsy construction purports to name.

Terms like these swiftly become stock phrases, akin to clichés. And clichés are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes writing for research. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes involve a lot of decision-making. Researchers of all kinds earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy clichés and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. My examples have focused on gender, socio-economic status, and age; other terminology can be demeaning to different groups such as people of colour or people with mental health problems. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that supports any discriminatory actions or practices.

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