Simon Jarrett: When talking takes the biscuit

Simon Jarrett discusses the perils of language and the stupidity of intellectuals, and is baffled by some moral juggling from within the House of Lords

As Pippa Bailey reminded us in a New Statesman article about the power of social media companies, the only industries that refer to their customers as “users” are tech and illegal drugs. She’s not quite right. People with learning disabilities who receive services are also referred to as users.

Bailey’s point is that when you are categorised as a user of something, the aim is to exploit you and extract as much value from you as possible. Which should give us pause for thought when we use the term “service user”.


Customers on the loose

Language is always problematic and, in seeking to overcome the problems, we sometimes make things worse. I was once involved with a local authority that decided to use the word “customer” instead of “service user”. The idea was that this would make staff realise that the people they worked with were just like any customer in a shop or elsewhere, and should be accorded similar respect and courtesy.

I got a phone call one day telling me  “a customer has escaped from the day centre”. I would guess that a real customer could just walk out any time they like  and buy a service from another day centre. I doubt if Waitrose managers  get worried calls to say that a customer has just escaped from the savoury biscuits section.


Big brains, small minds

I was recently asked to write something about how intellectuals have viewed people with learning disabilities. I wrote that on the whole, with a few honourable exceptions, intellectuals have always looked very badly on people with learning disabilities, and often express the wish they were not around at all.

The long roll call of shame includes writers Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, socialist reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. One of my explanations is that people who depend for their esteem on their brainpower to the exclusion of all else feel very threatened by people who can lead a good life without any apparent need for a massive intellect.


Outfoxed by morality

Talking of people with strange views about learning disability, Claire Fox has been in the news recently. Fox, a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who later became an MEP for the Brexit Party, was recently elevated to the House of Lords. This caused controversy because she is seemingly unrepentant about her past support for IRA bombing campaigns.

I heard her not so long ago on Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussing the morality of eliminating Down syndrome through antenatal testing. She said that she wanted to both celebrate the lives  of people with Down syndrome and see  the end of Down syndrome through prenatal testing. To wish simultaneously to celebrate a type of person and bring about their extinction is quite a moral juggling act.