“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” – George Orwell.
In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
Orwell’s purpose was to bemoan and decry the deformation of the English language by politicians seeking partisan advantage. But what doesn’t fully come across in Orwell’s essay is their strategic use of language to reframe the way we think. From Newt Gingrich’s famous list of adjectives to be used to redefine the Democrats as the incarnation of all evil to John Howard’s astute appropriation of words like mateship and battler, the Right has had a knockdown victory in the Language Wars. This may be about to change, though, at least if the advice of George Lakoff in his newly released book Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate seeps in to political thinking.
NOTE: For a variety of reasons, I will not be blogging again for some time. This post attempts to refine further a number of ideas about politics I’ve been developing throughout my time at Troppo. New readers might like to refresh their memories by browsing the archive of my posts.
Language determines how we view the world, but not in the sense that there’s an unproblematic correspondence between social and political concepts and their referents. Lakoff, a prominent cognitive scientist and linguist, correctly argues that how we understand facts is a function of how we frame them. While this might superficially be similar to the postmodernist argument that language is our prison house, Lakoff by contrast is acutely aware of political agency in framing issues and therefore how we read the political and social worlds.
A good example is the rhetoric of “tax relief”, much favoured by George W. Bush. This phraseology, Lakoff argues, implies first that tax is a burden or a virulent disease which cries out for a cure. Though taxes are imposed by government in the first place, the governing Republicans are able to distance themselves from the very political institutions that they control (partly because they run against Washington) and position themselves as on the side of the ordinary citizen against the behemoth of big government. This frame also has the unbeatable political advantage of being a simple way to look at the world. Complex debates about progressive tax scales or tax boondoggles can be avoided, and the resonances of the Republicans’ crusade for tax relief are linked nicely to the values for which the party stands – themselves powerfully rhetorically articulated.
A similar argument could be made about the language of “welfare dependency”. This implies that welfare recipients are pathologically sucking on the tit of the Nanny state. While welfare used to be a positive word, its associations with things everyone is against – passivity, dependency, disease, pathology – reframe welfare itself as a dirty word, and thus a problem to be eliminated. People are written out of this frame, or cast out as the threatening underclass. Just as the Howardians tried their hardest to avoid showing any humanising images of asylum seekers as real people, so too are debates about the underclass designed to position “all of us” as virtuous, and those who are welfare dependent as a greedy and lazy class of unruly and failed citizens who must be treated with “tough love” at the very best.
Lakoff asks rhetorically – why are only some values defined as family values? The Culture Wars are ostensibly about our social fabric. What they are really about is deeply reshaping our perception of the world so that the easy answers propagated by the Right become the new common sense. The Labor Party, and other forces in Australian politics opposed to the Howardians, then find themselves either arguing against the grain (“but taking money from private schools is class warfare and many aspirational battlers struggle to give their kids the best”) or conceding the argument before it’s even made (“we’re better than the Libs at fiscal policy”). There has to be another way, and it’s definitely not The Third Way.
I criticised postmodernism recently because it lacks a positive politics and tends to substitute linguistic playfulness for substantive political and social action. But one thing the postmodernists are aware of is the power of language. It’s just that arcane and intimidating academic prose is not the way to change society. The Right knows this, with its network of thinktanks, op/ed writers and its strategic acuity in knowing how to tell a story that makes all of us think we are Australians with values deeply in tune with the Howardians. The Right have a very good sense of how to use images and language to spin a narrative that redefines reality. The Left is yet to learn the lesson.