The Language of Politics and Fear
Written by Declan Mulholland, Chair of Leeds Beckett Labour.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discourse surrounding modern day politics is the purposeful use of anodyne words. The death of innocent civilians in conflict is referred to as “collateral damage”. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was referred to as “the war on terror”. The 21st Century politician often doesn’t decide, they “determine”. They don’t have ideas, they have “initiatives”. Often they don’t answer but they “respond”. These bland, neutral words allow the 21st century politician to hide behind a mirror of vacuous ambiguity almost relinquishing them of responsibility. The use of these empty words creates a dissociation from reality and a disconnection of emotion from the general public. Used this way, political jargon can be more dangerous and infinitely more effective than basic language.
The Thatcher-Regan era saw the western adoption of free market fundamentalism, the belief in the ability of free market policies to solve economic and social problems. This ideology was widely regarded at the time by a large majority of economists as extreme. The belief that free markets provided the greatest possibly equity and prosperity for all sections of society was viewed at the time as radical economic policy. With the Western adoption of this economic belief saw radical changes within Western economics. In order to make this economic belief popular with the general public, a drastic change in the language associated capital and money had to occur. The word “Debt” traditionally has negative connotations, this was replaced by “Credit”. Banks began to offer “Credit Cards” as opposed to “Debt Cards”. The banking industry became dominated by financial jargon, annual percentage rates, variable interest rates, balance transfer, grace periods, introductory rates. In a similar way to how many politicians hide behind empty language, the general public began to dissociate the actions and consequences of their financial decisions due to the financial jargon being used and the readily available nature of the “credit” being offered to them. In a way, the public were deceived by the creative use of language and the context in which debt was being portrayed to them.
In 2016 we still see the wide use of ambiguous language often by politicians and the media. In the same way that language had been used to frame the context of perception around capitalism, credit and debt in the lead up to the 2008 recession, it is being heavily used by the press and the incumbent government to frame the context of debate. The election of Jeremy Corbyn was seen by a large majority of people as a change in the political landscape. The phrase used in Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, “Straight talking, honest politics” has now been adopted by the Labour Party.
The reason behind the optimism, hope and strength of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign came from the promise of a new style of politics, free from the ills and deception of political jargon and ambiguous language.
However, predictably Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition continue to use carefully thought out language in an attempt to fear monger and reframe the context of debate around Corbyn’s promise of a new style of politics. The biggest example of this is the referral to Jeremy Corbyn and other left wing Labour MP’s alike as “socialist firebrands” or “hard left” or “radical left” in contrast to referring to centre-left Labour MP’s as “moderates”. Although these terms seem relatively unimportant they’re actually very effective in terms of framing the context of political debate. By repeatedly referring to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn as “extreme left” or a “threat to national security” this subconsciously engrains fear and apprehension of real change, effectively narrowing the parameters of debate around politics. The reasoning behind the motive to tarnish Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation by the continuous use of fear mongering language is that Jeremy Corbyn’s principles and ideas challenge the status quo. Jeremy Corbyn is challenging the very ground that debate is even taking place on as opposed to the centre-left MPs adoption of free market fundamentalism. Margaret Thatcher once said that New Labour was one of her greatest achievements as for her, she had brought the entire context of debate over towards her ground. Jeremy Corbyn represents a real opposition that offers a real alternative to the current Government and because of that he is seen as a threat to those who have benefitted most from the post Thatcher context of political debate. We have the freedom to use language we don’t own, however when we begin to adopt and use terminologies that have been deliberately engineered for a specific purpose not only do we undermine the context of debate but we undermine the parameters of our democracy. We must reclaim our language and give it meaning, for it is language that provides us with debate and discussion, without that, we have nothing.