Dehumanizing Language

April 19, 2010 at 2:43 pm Leave a comment

We live in a business culture. The driving values of business are the underlying values of our culture. Business culture is no longer just confined to business. It is now the underlying ethos behind most aspects of our society. Health care is no longer patient oriented, it is business oriented at its core providing not healing but services. Education is no longer about a more traditional approach to educating our young to think critically; now it is basically concerned with job training skills and thinking critically is definitely not high on list of those skills and so we have a ‘dumb downed’ approach to education. Government is less and less about serving the people and more and more about being run according to “efficient” business principles. Our legal system, once the great equalizer in our society that supported the powerless or less powerful in their interactions with the more powerful (read business elite), if we go by recent Supreme Court decisions, is more pro-business than ever before. Even the artistic expressions of our society are completely at the whim of the business ethos that permeates our society.

A major consequence of our business oriented culture is the degrading of human relationships which are at the heart of ethics. Ethics is how we conduct ourselves in relationships with others to create the trust we need to function effectively as a society. I find one of the key debasing features of our business culture has been the wholesale adoption of business language as the language of human relationships. In the business world people are not referred to as people but as clients or customers. ‘Client’ and ‘customer’ are abstract terms that confer on the object of those terms only a quasi-human status. In the business world of spread sheets, statistics, proposals, and overall ideology, these terms have the great tendency to remove the business person from encountering the humanity of the client/customer. Instead of John Doe or Jane Smith, who by virtue of their names are flesh and blood people demanding the dignity accrued to their persons through their real names, the use of client/customer turns a person into a thing, something on an impersonal ledger that can be moved around and dealt with with minimum attention to the personhood of that person. I think this is why there are so many violations of basic human rights, needs, and fiduciary obligations in the business world. The language of business de-humanizes people; it removes the humanity of people from the consciousness of some business people as it effectively categorizes people as things. It is easier to take advantage of a client/customer when the humanity of that client/customer has been effectively marginalized by the very language used to describe and identify.

This marginalization of personhood through the use of business language also plays itself out in other areas of our society. Just two examples of what I’m writing about. First education. One of the major battles at our universities and colleges (and, unfortunately, in some of our elementary and secondary schools) is the use of the alienating terms of client/customer to refer to what we used to call ‘student’. In education, client/customer as a term has a whole different connotation than does the term student. The former is someone to be dealt with on a far more impersonal level while the latter term demands personal attention from his/her teachers. Client/customer is the preferred terminology used by administrators in academic institutions while student is still the preferred terminology invoked by most teachers/professors and the students themselves (I have yet to hear of a student in a college or university refer to him/herself as a client of the institution). When dealing with the dollars and cents of running an academic institution I think it makes hard decisions a bit easier for administrators when referring to students as clients who are provided services rather than students who learn through their encounters with their teachers. The other example is health care. Again the preferred term for health care administrators to apply to people who require medical attention is client/customer rather than the traditional term of patient. In health care, a client is provided services in the most ‘efficient’ manner while a patient is someone who is looking for a personal relationship with the health care provider (also a business language term, not doctor or nurse) which quite likely makes for an inefficient relationship from a money point of view. Also note that both academic institutions and health care institutions must have business models of operation rather than caring models or patient/student centric models. Another business language (business model) term that distances the user of the term from the humanity of the people who require education and health care.

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