TOM UTLEY: If shark attacks must be renamed ‘negative encounters’, what can I call the lunatic who attacked my car?
How life imitates art! As my fellow devotees of his work will be aware, my colleague Craig Brown wrote a brilliantly funny article in yesterday’s paper, which took the form of a series of letters from seagulls, complaining about the way in which the behaviour of their species is portrayed in the media.
One of these letters, from ‘a leading seagull and a founder member of the SAG (Seagull Actors Guild)’, alluded to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror film, The Birds.
Signed ‘S. Creech’, it ended with the words: ‘That notorious film set the cause of Gull Liberation back a hundred years or more. Only our friends in the shark community have been given a worse press.’
Who could have guessed that even as my friend Craig was penning his flight of fancy, real-life champions of the shark community on the other side of the world would be springing to the defence of these marine predators against what they see as unfair media coverage?
All right, the fish-fanciers in question are not actually sharks themselves. They are human academics, who persuaded officials in some parts of Australia to stop referring to ‘shark attacks’ in news handouts and warnings to tourists — far too scary, they reckon — and to call them ‘negative encounters’ or ‘interactions’ instead.
Among these scientists is Leonardo Guida, a researcher at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, who says the change will help dispel ‘inherent assumptions sharks are ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters’ and ‘improve the public’s understanding of sharks’.
Another is Dr Christopher Pepin-Neff, a shark researcher at the University of Sydney, who insists: ‘Shark attack’ is a lie.’
You must forgive me if I sound cynical, but I can’t help wondering if the human victims of the 57 unprovoked clashes with sharks recorded last year — ten of them fatal, of which six were in Australia — would have felt better about their experience if they had been assured that these were not ‘attacks’, but merely ‘negative encounters’ or ‘interactions’.
But then of course euphemisms are very much in vogue these days. Indeed, I’ve long thought that a day may be approaching when we won’t be allowed to say anything in plain language, lest it could possibly offend somebody’s feelings.
Academics have persuaded officials in some parts of Australia to stop referring to ‘shark attacks’ in news handouts and warnings to tourists — far too scary, they reckon — and to call them ‘negative encounters’ or ‘interactions’ instead [Stock image]
Now it seems that this rule applies even if those who could be offended happen to be hungry aquatic animals with powerful jaws, terrifying teeth and an occasional appetite for human flesh.
Funnily enough, only this week I myself suffered what I saw at the time as an unprovoked attack, but which perhaps I should describe, in the spirit of the times, in more obscure language.
True, my assailant — or, rather, my car’s assailant — was not a shark. She was a young woman, clearly drunk and drugged up to the eyeballs, who was standing in the middle of a narrow side-street near my home, blocking my attempt to turn into it from the main road.
I waited for her to move, but she just stood there, seemingly in a catatonic trance, while a queue of traffic built up behind me. She was soon joined in the middle of the road by another young woman, in an equally far-gone state, who started haranguing her furiously, waving her arms about, apparently oblivious of the traffic jam they were both causing.
After a bit, the driver of the bus behind me lost patience and beeped his horn at them. At this, the second young woman turned and glared — not at the bus driver, but at me.
She then started kicking my car, again and again, until I was afraid that she would break my headlights. Mercifully, however, she was in too sorry a state to do any real damage — and when she had tired of her efforts, she eventually allowed me to edge past her, giving my back bumper a hefty kick to help me on my way.
Back home at last, I told Mrs U that the car had just been attacked by a lunatic, out of her mind on drink or drugs. After the news from Australia, I now realise I should have told her that it had experienced a ‘negative interaction with a person suffering from mental health and addiction issues’.
But then I belong to a generation brought up in the days before those who lay down the law on these matters became hypersensitive about language and the possibility of giving offence.
When I was a lad, all women without titles were addressed as Mrs or Miss, according to their marital status — and I find it hard to believe any but a handful felt insulted. I can speak for most people when I say no insult was intended.
Indeed, at first it seemed a great joke when feminists started insisting on Ms. But woe to the unreconstructed traditionalist nowadays who addresses a woman by a title perceived as sexist if she happens not to like it.
In the same way, those who chaired meetings were universally referred to as chairmen, whichever their sex happened to be –— and how people laughed when Left-wingers began calling them ‘chairpersons’ or ‘chairs’. They daren’t laugh any more (not out loud, anyway).
I’ve been haunted all week by the story of Marcelo Rocha Santos, 51, who waded into the sea from a Brazilian beach to relieve himself after drinking with his friends. Minutes later, his hand had been bitten off and a chunk taken from his leg. Can it be any comfort to Marcelo, or to his near and dear, to be told this wasn’t a shark attack, but merely a ‘negative encounter’? [Stock image]
Again, the people who collected the rubbish in my childhood were dustmen, while even those few women who put out fires for a living were known as firemen. That was before hypersensitive souls began insisting that ‘waste management operatives’ was the correct and ‘inclusive’ term for the former, and ‘firefighter’ for the latter. But did anyone really feel offended by the old words, before we were all told that they were offensive?
It has come to the point where many job titles offer precious little clue to what their holders actually do for a living. What is a Community Outreach Liaison Officer, for example, or a Media Portfolio Development Overseer? And don’t get me started on the BBC, with its legions of absurd job titles, past and present: Thematic Adviser, Governance; Decision Support Manager; Client Solutions Executive; Head of Audiences, Vision Multiplatform . . .
As for the minefield of identity politics, you have to stay very alert to keep up with the currently approved terms. I remember a time when it was thought offensive to use the word ‘black’, and ‘coloured’ was accepted as the politically correct term. Then the latter became taboo, and black was the preferred word. Next, black went out and Bame caught on — though this is rapidly being overtaken by the cumbersome expression ‘person of colour’.
No longer are people ‘disabled’. They are now ‘differently abled’, or ‘people with disabilities’. No one is fat, either. They’re either ‘roly-poly’ or ‘suffering from morbid obesity’ (which I’ve long thought sounds much ruder than ‘fat’).
And God forbid that anyone should call a child ‘slow’, let alone ‘backward’. No, today he or she has ‘learning difficulties’ or ‘special needs’.
Yes, I know that such euphemisms and circumlocutions are well-meant, spread to avoid hurting feelings or, in the case of those elaborate job descriptions, to enhance people’s sense of self-worth.
But what matters, surely, is the intention behind the words we use. If our aim is to insult a woman by addressing her as ‘Madam Chairman’, rather than ‘Chair’, then that is clearly wrong. But where there is no such intention — and there almost never is — I see no earthly reason why anyone should take offence.
But back to those sharks, where I began. I’ve been haunted all week by the story of Marcelo Rocha Santos, 51, who waded into the sea from a Brazilian beach to relieve himself after drinking with his friends. Minutes later, his hand had been bitten off and a chunk taken from his leg.
When his friends dragged him to the shore, he fell unconscious on the beach and was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
To be fair to sharks and their champions, cases such as this are rare. But can it be any comfort to Marcelo, or to his near and dear, to be told this wasn’t a shark attack, but merely a ‘negative encounter’?
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