Vernacular: Politically Correct vs. Politically Active

How important is vernacular? Pointing out fallacies in language – grammatical or even the forever changing list of now politically incorrect terms one might utilise – can stilt the flow of a discussion or even make someone feel blushed with shame.

Yet no one can disregard the power of language. Sir Bob Geldof, with his charming Irish accent and words of compassion, had the power to bring together a rockstar supergroup coined Band Aid in 1984 and the following year organised Live Aid, a huge dual-concert held to raise funds for relief of the ongoing famine in Ethiopia. His actions and words not only raised a great deal of money, they influenced the political sphere and attitudes towards foreign aid. At the AIDS2014 conference, however, Geldof’s “I-don’t-give-a-rats-arse” attitude and politically incorrect language baffled many.

At the AIDS2014 conference in Melbourne, Bob Geldof made two speeches. The first was during a lounge-room discussion between himself and Waleed Aly. The second was at the closing ceremony of the conference, where Geldof strutted up and down the stage and spoke in a stream-of-consciousness manner.

In his speeches, there were rustles of discontent and claps of approval from the audience. Geldof spoke in such a manner that was purposely controversial, and sometimes downright rude. Yet despite this, Geldof spoke with an honesty that was ice-bath refreshing

For example, Geldof slammed the Russian government for only contributing US100 million dollars to the Global Fund, which helps to fight malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and shamed the South African government for donating a mere US1.5 million dollars, which is appallingly low for a state that has one of the highest prevalence of HIV.

So all in all, does it really matter that Sir Bob Geldof dismisses politically correct language?

Is it truly damaging that he makes gigantic generalisations and often speaks as if certain categories of people, or “key populations”, don’t have agency?[1] Or is it okay for Bob Geldof to disregard all forms of political correctness because he has been dedicating the past 30 years of his life to various forms of aid and development goals?

In the discussion Waleed Aly asked how Geldof responded to the “white-saviour complex”, and pointed to some of the postcolonial criticisms of the white-western world’s aid work in Africa, to which Geldof replied “fuck-off” and continued to talk about his experiences in Africa.

Some may respond that it is even worse that someone who has been working within these communities fails to recognise the importance of not just their actions, but also their words.

In the “welcome pack” at AIDS2014, delegates were given a piece of paper that contained a list of the appropriate language to use when writing or talking about HIV/AIDs. For example, someone who is HIV positive shouldn’t be referred to as a HIV sufferer or victim because the terms are disempowering. Sir Bob certainly hadn’t read through his welcome pack.

In the closing ceremony Geldof bagged out the red ribbons (also provided in the welcome pack) that were worn by many of the delegates, the mayor of Melbourne and the heads of various international organisations in recognition HIV/AIDs. They do fuck-all he declared. Geldof is right to a certain extent – wearing a red-ribbon doesn’t directly ensure that a HIV positive person gets access to the best medication. Yet it is a small step for HIV/AIDs advocacy. Moreover, removing the stigma attached to being HIV positive is a hugely important step for the cause.

George Orwell continuously emphasised the importance of language, in particular in regards to its influence in politics. In 1984, newspeak is utilised as a dystopian case-study to demonstrate the power of language. When one deletes certain words out of the dictionary, it makes it harder to understand or feel the emotions associated with those words. It is harder to express yourself, it is harder to think independent thoughts, and ultimately, it is harder to rebel. One can conclude from the lessons of Orwell that it is important for Geldof to consider the language that he is utilising, and whether or not it will produce the actions that he so dearly desires.

Ultimately it’s not about Bob Geldof himself, it’s about the communities that he benefits. It is pretty impossible to assess whether or not Geldof’s actions do more harm than good. However, every individual should be aware of how the language they utilise can reflect and affect thoughts, which can influence action. If a HIV positive person, for example, suggests that it is disempowering to be referred to as a victim or sufferer, the terminology used should be considered of cardinal importance.

Geldof is a man with an amazing presence and a powerful voice. Yet perhaps the owner of that voice needs to think more carefully about the influence of its words on the world.


[1] Key populations is the term that was decided to be utilised at the conference to refer to communities where people are more susceptible to being HIV positive: these categories include men who have sex with men, sex workers and people who inject drugs.

Photo: Nina Haysler

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