January 2016        

Mind your language

Part 2

Robert Navan

■ Part 1 was published in Socialist Voice, January 2013.

A newly arrived Martian would find themselves very confused by much of the language used by our mainly right-wing Western media. The confusion would arise from the constant use of words generally associated with the political left.
    Words such as “freedom,” “liberal” and “revolutionary,” which were common in the left-wing language of old, are now even used in advertising campaigns. Conservative parties and their spin doctors often promote their policies as revolutionary, even though these policies are identical to those favoured all around the world by capitalist economists. Rarely, if ever, are their spokespersons questioned about the words they use.
    One of the most regularly used words nowadays is “reform.” It invariably appears in the media when public bodies such as health, social welfare or, most recently, water services are the subject. Most dictionaries define the word as “to make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it.” “Reforming” taxation usually entails increasing the benefits of those at the top and is often achieved by “reforming,” through cuts, the health or welfare benefits of the poorest.
    Nobody with even the tiniest amount of social conscience could possibly interpret the changes that are being made or attempted now as improvements—in fact most would agree that it’s the exact opposite.
    “Liberal” is another word that has to be challenged. It is often defined as “a willingness to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” We now come across it in conjunction with neo-liberalism, which is anything but open to other economic ideas or behaviour. In fact neo-liberals have shown their willingness to demand violent repercussions on any state that does not implement their doctrine.
    The continuing low-intensity warfare against a country such as Venezuela is a good example; the higher end of the scale would be represented by countries like Libya and Syria. Liberalisation in economics now usually means the privatisation of public resources and the upward transfer of wealth to a small minority. Independent or opposing viewpoints are not tolerated, and countries that attempt to take a different path soon find themselves under attack.
    “Terrorism” is defined by the US Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” However, it has come to have geographical limitations. If the force or violence is being used against us (broadly meaning the West) it is called “terrorism”; if used against nations, states or people that we consider enemies or threats, the term is rarely used. For instance, how often have we heard it used to describe the actions of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, or indeed Western actions in Iraq?
    “Freedom” and “democracy” are words that are often used together, as if they are synonymous. They have probably been used in the same sentence by every president of the United States. As far as the West is concerned, both words are now urgently in need of retirement.
    One of the principles of neo-liberalism is the removal of economic policy from the democratic process. On the world stage, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation have been the main players in this process, but nearer to home the EU has become the most powerful instrument of the process.
    As we await the enactment of trade agreements such as TTIP that will take away the power of national legislatures, we can reflect that we have no democratic input into the process. After the recent attacks in Paris, many Irish people were surprised to hear the French president, François Hollande, say he would invoke article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon Treaty), the EU’s “mutual defence clause.” The article provides that when a member-state is attacked, all member-states must bring their solidarity to address the aggression.
    In other words, despite our supposed neutrality, Ireland could find itself involved in a war, without any democratic choice being made by the population. (As an aside, the Yes side in every constitutional referendum on EU treaties promised us that this situation, where our neutrality would be compromised, could never arise.)
    The colonisation of the language of the left hasn’t happened by accident. In a very interesting article by Prof. George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley the writer tells how conservatives in the United States use language to dominate politics and have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them.*
    Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland declares that “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Social democratic politicians may have allowed or even actively conspired to remove words such as “revolutionary” from their vocabulary for fear of upsetting the middle-ground constituency that they were pursuing for votes. This left the way clear for the right to adopt the words for their own usage.
    The big questions now are whether the left can reclaim the language, and how. A first step must be to challenge any words if and when they are used incorrectly or out of context.

*www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff.shtml.

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