The nuances of language

A letter from Shane McCarney.

Immediately following my reading of the superb article ‘Chronic pain acceptance does not equal accepting chronic pain’ by Ute Liersch (December issue), I felt compelled to write (that doesn’t often happen!) as Liersch’s description of the nuances of language when speaking with our clients/patients spoke to me also. In my work in a community brain injury service I have noted the importance of how we convey a message / communicate as being as, if not more, important than what we actually communicate. Paying attention to the intricacies of the language we use, and even collaboratively developing the language used alongside my clients, has helped a shared formulation become more than just a description of a person’s story combined with relevant theoretical underpinnings – it turns it from a ‘static entity’ to a ‘psychological process of change’ that is relevant in any chronic condition.

However when Dr Liersch called herself a ‘scientist-practitioner’ after describing ‘Accepting…with automatic counteracting’, my internal supervisor recalled a number of other articles in recent issues of The Psychologist that perhaps were not as reflective on the nuances of language and were more in the ‘automatic counteracting’ mode. In a time when society appears to be divided along so many fault lines – Racism (Black Lives Matter vs. White Supremacy); Brexit (Leave vs. Remain); Politics (right wing vs. left wing); Covid-19 (health vs. wealth and more recently vaccine vs. anti-vax), it is probably no great surprise that the long rumbling science vs. art debate should rise to the surface on the pages of The Psychologist.

As Michael Billig stated in his excellent article (November issue) when espousing the virtues of descriptive examples, ‘Psychologists, especially if they know the history of their discipline, have choices in the way they write’. I would add that we also have choices in the way we speak and in the way we think. Jasmin Kaur Gill (December letters) stated, ‘We should not hide behind the need for scientific rigour before making changes’, and whilst this was in response to the issue of racism, indeed institutional racism within the BPS, I argue that the change required is ‘accepting’ the need to move from either/or stances to both/and positions in how we as psychologists write, speak and think to encourage our clients/patients, colleagues, civic leaders and the wider public to engage in further critical debate on the big issues affecting our world – rather than closing issues down to further consideration. We can be Scientific Artists, or Artistic Scientists, or Scientist Practitioners, or Scientists, or Practitioners, or any combination of these. As the late Northern Ireland politician John Hume once said, ‘The essence of unity… is the acceptance of diversity’. I can only imagine that if John Hume had the opportunity to read Dr Liersch’s article he might swap in ‘accepting’ for ‘acceptance’.

Dr Shane McCarney
Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Western HSC Trust Community Brain Injury Service Lead Clinician

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