One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).
Strong and stable
For the many, not the few
Britain must live within its means
The system is rigged for the rich
Brexit means Brexit
Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!
The destruction of nuance
One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.
Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.
For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.
Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.
I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:
‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’
Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.
We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.
And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.
This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.
Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.
And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.
But it actually works!
Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.
Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.
But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!
What to do
No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.
We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.
My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.
Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.