Sexing up the language

I’m a text-worker. We text-workers are a lot like sex-workers: we’ve been around since the dawn of time (or at least since the written word), we’re congenitally under-appreciated, we’ll do almost anything for money, we can hold several positions simultaneously without feeling compromised (that’s because we were compromised so long ago) and we can make almost any bad idea look good in the right lighting. Unlike sex-workers we’re not terribly well paid and we aren’t unionized in Holland.

Also, not unlike hookers, we are frequently called upon by our clients to use sexy language. You know what I mean: ‘building my career profile’, instead of ‘avoiding serious work for the last decade’, ‘developing key competences’ instead of ‘going to night school’ … that kind of thing. But sometimes in this job you meet a word you just can’t sex up very much. One of these is ‘solidarity’.

The problem with solidarity

Now, solidarity is a great concept. It’s anchored deep in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the sum of the ties that bind us all. It’s our common heritage and experience and values translated into action … but it’s a lousy word. Recently I had the task of working on a public presentation text about solidarity in the field of social services and voluntary work. I balked at actually using the word ‘solidarity’ in the heading. I said; “no one is going to read further than the title.” And I’m sure I was right. As a word it is quite particularly turgid and porridge-like, and this from a big fan of porridge.

Say “solidarity” and most people think of Lech Walesa’s moustache. No offence, but it doesn’t really get the juices flowing, does it? What we’re trying to get across is this: since we’re all essentially in the same boat (yes, this means you Donald Trump and you Janet Doe-in the-dole-queue) then we really ought to make life easier for each other, rather than more difficult. It’s a simple enough idea, one that every refugee, CEO, ‘refugee CEO’ (there’s a lot of them about), property developer or Afghan warlord ought to be able to grasp. An idea that includes us all: Greeks, Somalis, Venezuelans, Belgians, Pitcairn Islanders and even Russell Brand. So why do we have such terrible difficulties putting it into practice?

A rose by any other name

True, the word doesn’t help. But call it by another name and it won’t necessarily smell any sweeter. ‘Plog’ or ‘gripling’, or the very sexy “swoonelope” (to rhyme with Cruz) just won’t do, neither will synonyms like ‘sympathy’ (too soft), ‘unity’ (like the original, too static), ‘cohesion’ (nice, but a bit sticky), ‘camaraderie’ (too jolly). Then there’s ‘unanimity’, which sounds like we all agree on it, though we don’t, and ‘esprit de corps’ which, like all things French with the exception of ‘le shuttle’, is perhaps sexier than we actually wanted. So, for lack of a truly easy-to-use, trips-off-the-tongue, just-cool-enough word, we are failing to live up to our human obligations to help and sustain our brothers and sisters in their struggle for life, liberty, dignity and reasonably decent plumbing.  How about … ‘love’?

“Plog” your neighbour

But no, that won’t work either. Love has been colonized and now means something best expressed inside the equation ‘pop = art + capital x mass media’. ‘Love’ in the context of solidarity has become fifty thousand people in a stadium singing “We are the World”. And anyway, all this avoids the point. It’s not only the word but the deeds involved that are problematical. Solidarity is a bugger to get right. Will my bio fuel damage the rainforest? Will my fair trade product force prices down even further for all those who aren’t lucky enough to be allied with it? Will my foreign aid unintentionally undermine indigenous efforts and markets?  Will my wind farm weaken the prevailing wind and alter the climate? Will my abstention from voting as a protest against corruption hand the country over to the fascists? Will my voluntary engagement in a partially state-supported project to employ the unemployable end up undercutting honest johns who are trying to make a living in the same field? All decisions born from feelings of solidarity are so fraught with possibly contradictory consequences that, like Pascal, we might prefer, and even be better advised, to sit alone in our room.

Maybe that’s why the answer to the question: “who is my neighbour?” is about as universal or as specific as you want to make it. When it comes to loving my neighbour, he or she or it is any living thing not damaged, disenfranchised or disadvantaged by that love in any way … as well as those whom it might motivate, uplift or empower.

Edwin Drood

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