You’d think she tried to steal Christmas and clear European streets of every crib. She didn’t. Helena Dalli’s ‘guidelines for inclusive communication’ – issued in October and now hastily withdrawn with an apology from the commissioner herself – did nothing of the sort.
If she had tried that, you wouldn’t have heard about it only from the rancid right-wing press in Italy and the UK. The furore would have spread to every member state, if not to defend Christmas, then to stand up for the prerogatives of national governments against the commission’s overreach.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, seems to think the document was downplaying Christianity’s role in the formation of Europe’s identity, past and present. He must have been badly briefed. So was Pope Francis, who seems to think the document’s aim is to impose cultural uniformity on member states.
I’ve read the document. Its intended audience is the staff of the commission. Its aim is to give guidelines on the preparation of documents, audiovisual aids and presentations to various audiences in Europe.
The guidelines are based on sensible advice that any subeditor would give. Keep your audience in mind: don’t let the people you’re addressing feel they’re off your radar. Write clearly, precisely and concretely. Be thoughtful; do not overgeneralise. Use a range of examples. Do not call a spade a spade if it’s a shovel.
The General Secretariat of the Council of the EU came up with similar ones a few years ago and the European Parliament has followed. Dalli’s guidelines for the commission largely make the same points and often the very same examples, which previously have not stirred controversy.
What kind of advice is it? Don’t use visual aids that always show the same kind of people. Don’t speak of older people as an amorphous group – ‘the elderly’ – that’s inactive and completely dependent.
Make sure your language keeps up with science, careers and society. Don’t say people ‘suffer’ from a mental condition; all you know is that they have one. Don’t assume astronauts are men. In your homely examples, don’t repeatedly use names from the same cultural stock; use Malika and Giulio, as well as Janet and John.
These suggestions and illustrations are not based on political correctness that is, obfuscation driven by dogmatic ideology. They’re based on the world as it is.
Over 11 per cent of astronauts are women and rising. With proper help, people with a mental condition manage it as well as others manage their diabetes; to speak of them suffering from it is to portray them as less capable of managing responsibility than they are.
There are thousands of inter-religious couples in Europe today, including between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. They shouldn’t be airbrushed out, especially if we believe in a Europe that welcomes such choices.
Is the document perfect? No, in a few of the places where Dalli’s team went beyond the preceding documents, they slipped up.
It’s pushing the envelope to single out ‘ladies and gentlemen’ as too binary and exclusive. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ has little to do with being either genteel or binary. It is a placeholder term, for formal polite occasions, which we use when we want to avoid being precise about the hypocrites, cheats, adulterers, liars, thieves and war criminals mingling in the audience.
Does anyone seriously want our public servants to talk as though they’re oblivious to the actual religious pluralism in Europe?- Ranier Fsadni
If we can stretch ‘ladies and gentlemen’ to cover those intersectional categories, it can be stretched across the full non-binary spectrum.
Then there’s the suggestion to avoid referring to the ‘colonisation’ of Mars because of the negative connotations of ‘colonisation’. This is pure humbug. If we ever get to Mars, rest assured the project will indeed be colonisation with its full historical connotations. If Elon Musk gets there first, you can bet SpaceX will perform an analogous role to that played historically by the East India Company.
In any case, the commission has no business second-guessing how history will unfold. The mistake here, however, was that the specific example violated the guidelines themselves. It wasn’t concrete. It ignored the full range of human possibility. It endorsed a stereotype over the actual world.
Finally, the notorious example to do with Christmas. It has nothing to do with Europe’s historical identity or, indeed, Christianity itself. It has to do with making sure you relate to your audience.
The general advice is sensible: do not assume your audience is Christian. A good idea when believing Christians are a minority in Europe today.
The illustration of good practice, however, was poor: avoid saying things like Christmas is stressful; instead say that holidays are stressful.
The problem: are there any other holidays, apart from Christmas, that are stressful? Not the summer holidays. Not Easter, Ramadan, or, to my knowledge, Hanukkah or any other.
Christmas is stressful for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with its non-religious commercialisation, angst over gifts and chain of office parties. Even some Muslims report being stressed by Christmas – all those boozy festivities they’re obliged to attend while looking like refuseniks.
The document’s example was poor because it violated its own injunction to be concrete and real. But the principle it meant to illustrate is unimpeachable. Does anyone seriously want our public servants to talk as though they’re oblivious to the actual religious pluralism in Europe?
In ordinary circumstances, the document would have been quietly revised, with a section added about other languages.
So why, this time, the fuss? That’s the real news story: not the crime, but the cover-up. Not the document but the furore and conspicuous apologetic retraction.
Ah, but to understand that we need to let go of Dalli’s Christmas and ask for the help of a reliable Belgian. Now, it’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.