Linguistic Disobedience: Restoring Power to Civic Language, by Yuliya Komska, Michelle Moyd and David Gramling

When authoritarian populists employ the speech forms once deployed to counter totalitarians, how are we to critique what we consider abuses? wonders Deborah Cameron

November 15, 2018
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The corruption of civic discourse is not a new preoccupation: it has been deplored in every age and almost every civilisation that I can think of. But in the past decade this very old tradition of language complaint has entered what looks like a new phase.

Linguistic Disobedience argues that in the world we inhabit now, the most familiar forms of linguistic criticism, which were developed in response to 20th-century totalitarianism (think George Orwell and Victor Klemperer), no longer speak to our most pressing concerns. Today’s populist leaders, men such as Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, are not silver-tongued orators, nor do they obfuscate their meaning using jargon, euphemism and circumlocution: they are perfectly at home with the plain, demotic language that Orwell prescribed as an antidote to corruption. Other strategies once associated with resistance from below, such as irony, sarcasm and parody, have been harnessed very effectively by the trolls, misogynists and neo-Nazis of the alt-right. How, the authors ask, can linguistic disobedience be reimagined in and for these new conditions?

Their proposals are organised around three main ideas. The chapter headed “Critique” suggests that we should approach language with a kind of self-conscious distrust, looking for the gaps, the silences, the lack of correspondence between words and things. “Correction” proposes that we should be willing to intervene to point out the inequalities and injustices presupposed by others’ discourse and, conversely, be able to tolerate the discomfort of having our own discourse corrected. “Care” exhorts us to view language as a shared resource, like air or water, whose quality we all have an interest in maintaining: this task should not be left to the elite academies that have traditionally been charged with setting standards but should rather be understood as everyone’s responsibility.

Although I share many of the authors’ intellectual and political commitments, I was not entirely convinced by these “what-is-to-be-done” chapters. It’s easy to affirm the general principle that “language matters”, and far more difficult to spell out what follows from that proposition in practice – not least because that is ultimately a political rather than a linguistic question. Conflicts about language are not usually between people who think language matters and people who think it doesn’t: they’re between people who, precisely because they agree that language matters, want it to be used in ways that embody their values and serve their interests. Where they have competing values and interests, they will also have different ideas about what counts as abusing language, or conversely as resisting its abuse. When Jordan Peterson publicly proclaimed that he would not comply with a new law requiring the use of preferred pronouns, for instance, was that a courageous act of linguistic disobedience or a deplorable example of transphobic hate speech? The answer, surely, is that both interpretations are possible: which you prefer will depend on your political point of view.

Now, as in the past, there is no consensus on what makes language good or bad (although there is and always has been a widespread conviction that it is getting worse). The ideal sketched out in this book will resonate with some readers; others will be unconvinced. The arguments, inevitably, will go on.

Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford.

Linguistic Disobedience: Restoring Power to Civic Language
By Yuliya Komska, Michelle Moyd and David Gramling
Palgrave-Macmillan, 175pp, £19.99
ISBN 9783319920092
Published 24 July 2018

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