Euphemism and power

New Labour, New Langauge - The Language War
September 8, 2000

Raphael Salkie dismantles political rhetoric from Blair to blah

Recently the newspapers reported that the word "Blairism" was giving the authors of the New Penguin English Dictionary sleepless nights. The search for an accurate but inoffensive definition had caused major disputes between lexicographers, and for several days afterwards the letters pages joined the fray. One acerbic correspondent pointed out that in 1858 the word "blairing" was defined as "polishing into correctness and smoothness",and that this seemed a surprisingly prescient description of the politics of new Labour. Meanwhile "Thatcherism" and "Reaganism" are in widespread use, but not, interestingly, "Majorism" or "Bushism" (except in the sense of "memorable remark made by X", as in John Major's celebrated "I can trace my family lineage back to my father, which is further than many of my colleagues in Parliament can do" and George W. Bush's "The senator... can't have it both ways. He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road").

Language plays a part in politics, certainly, but how big a part? The controversy about "Blairism" appeared, after all, during the silly season.

Professional linguists have a vested interest in stressing the importance of language in all areas of life, so when two of them write books about the language of politics, some initial wariness is in order. Can we really learn anything significant about how we are governed by analysing how the people at the top talk to each other and to us? The best-known linguist, Noam Chomsky, is also the one who has had most to say about politics, and he has always played down the importance of linguistics in helping us understand the big issues: plain common sense and healthy scepticism are enough, in his view.

Norman Fairclough's study of the language used by the British Labour government convinced me otherwise. Here is part of a speech by Tony Blair to the Confederation of British Industry: "We all know that this is a world of dramatic change. In technology; in trade; in media and communications; in the new global economy refashioning our industries and capital markets... The choice is: to let change overwhelm us, to resist it or equip ourselves to survive and prosper in it. The first leads to a fragmented society. The second is pointless and futile, trying to keep the clock from turning. The only way is surely to analyse the challenge of change and to meet it."

Fairclough focuses on the phrase "the new global economy refashioning our industries and capital markets", pointing out that the words take globalisation to be an established fact, something that "we all know". Those who champion this process (notably large companies, banks and political parties that support them) routinely present it as a fact of life, rather than something that is happening partially and unevenly. In addition, Fairclough notes that the agents of globalisation are completely absent from the prime minister's words: the fact that in today's capital markets, 95 per cent of transactions are speculative and 5 per cent correspond to trade in goods and services (compared with the opposite situation two decades ago) has not just happened by magic: particular people and institutions have brought it about.

The analysis goes further: Fairclough highlights the regular use of "change" in new Labour discourse (with the implication that anyone who disagrees with government policy is against change and therefore a dinosaur) and the rhetorical device of dismissing a couple of alternatives in favour of "the only way". Perhaps his most telling comments concern the ambiguity with which Blair uses the words "we/our/us", sometimes to mean "the British people", sometimes "the current government", sometimes "everyone in the world". The book is full of careful analyses of this kind,showing how alternatives to Blair's way are marginalised and made inexpressible by the language of new Labour.

New Labour, New Language is not a research monograph but a popular polemic, written in a lucid way, and with the minimum of technical baggage.It examines the language with which Labour politicians talk about the economy, welfare, freedom of information, the war in Kosovo, internal debate in the Labour Party and "the third way". To his credit, Fairclough makes his own political position clear at the outset and does not hesitate to discuss issues such as globalisation in some detail where relevant. He is careful not to overstate the importance of language in political matters, and his closing remarks, in which he calls on the government to value dialogue, difference and honesty, come across as perfectly reasonable. In short, this is an excellent example of how to make academic expertise accessible and informative, in the fine tradition of J. B. S. Haldane and G. D. H. Cole.

The same can sadly not be said about Robin Lakoff's The Language War , a less successful attempt to popularise the linguistic analysis of political events, this time exclusively in the United States. Lakoff begins by listing some of the main news stories of the past few years - including the O. J. Simpson trial, the fight over so-called "political correctness" in language and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair - and then goes on to say "we hate to let them go... each story spills out of the media and into our personal conversations, our private thoughts, our secret dreams". As Fairclough reminds us to ask, who is this "we"? Throughout the book, this same first person plural pronoun appears: "we cling to even discredited beliefs... in fear that we would be left alone, bewildered without them"; "we often take the behaviour of people depicted on television as a model for our own"; proportional representation is unpopular in the United States because it questions "our sense of ourselves as Americans", and so on. Surely any analysis of modern culture should avoid such crass statements.

There are, nevertheless, some valuable insights in this book. Lakoff is excellent on sexism in the job market: in response to the philosopher John Searle, who had described explicit positive discrimination in favour of women as "outrageous", she asks where his outrage was during the two recent decades when not a single member of Searle's department was female. In her discussion of "political correctness", Lakoff is scathing about the urban myths that start "I've heard tell of a campus where..."; and she makes the crucial point that those who promote non-oppressive language are hardly the rich and powerful in our society. The story of the "Ebonics" controversy - about the status of black American English - is recounted with clarity and intelligence.

What a pity, then, that the book is marred by moments of stunning simple-mindedness. For example: "The pundits opine that the economy wins and loses elections, but who has actually encountered, touched or smelled an Economy?" Excuse me, but average real wages in the United States have fallen consistently since 1973. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Dismissing the "economy" as an abstraction simply will not do. Here is another one: "In theory, both women and blacks are equally disadvantaged in late 20th-century American society..." - I hope that Lakoff means "both" rather than "exactly the same amount" (the context is unclear), but surely in a book about language this kind of careless statement is unacceptable.

The tone of the book is also a mistake. There are many groan-inducing plays on words: at one point Lakoff writes: "What Freud hath put asunder, the president of the United States can put back together." Early on a caption says "Language creates reality" then later we find that "the media are becoming the creators of our reality, not merely its conduit", (pardon me again, whose reality?). An impression of weighty expertise is attempted by other headings such as "Frames as makers of meaning" and the impenetrable "Metanarrativity trumps polynarrativity". The mixture of folksiness ("The story of ugh"; "Hillary Clinton: what the sphinx thinks") and intellectualism (regular unexplained use of "postmodern", "post-feminist" and like terms) is exactly how not to write a book for a lay readership. The title of the book creates a disturbing air of drama, and sure enough, the last chapter on sex in the White House is introduced as "Armageddon" and "High noon".

Both books are already a little dated. Fairclough wrote his when the Labour government's popularity seemed secure and before talk about "the third way" became unfashionable. The O. J. Simpson trial and the near-impeachment of President Clinton have been and gone. Both writers, however, make an important point that is still highly relevant, namely that elites in any society try to use language in a way that strengthens their hold on power.

This is not a complex matter, and it does not require esoteric scholarly tools to expose it. Unlike Fairclough and Lakoff, I am not persuaded that it is happening more now than in the past, but happening it is. One example is "social exclusion", an expression regularly used by Labour politicians. Fairclough shows that the choice of words makes a difference: why not simply "poverty" or "unemployment" or "crumbling and underfunded schools and hospitals"?

So language is important (but not so important that it "creates our reality"), and a careful dissection of political language can be useful in exposing how the people at the top try to keep the rest of the world confused and powerless. Linguistic analysis cannot replace ideological analysis: Lakoff's book shows the danger of attempting one without the other, whereas Fairclough combines the two excellently. If you think that there are real and important divisions in our society, then the government's repeated talk of "partnership" is simply that - so much talk. If you do not believe that what is good for shareholders is good for everyone, then "stakeholding" is just empty rhetoric. Anyone who reminds us of facts such as these has done a useful service.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

New Labour, New Langauge

Author - Norman Fairclough
ISBN - 0 415 21826 8 and 218 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £9.00
Pages - 178

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