This is an article in anticipation of the Battle of Ideas 2018, with which Areo is proud to partner to bring politically and ideologically diverse viewpoints together for constructive debate. Dolan Cummings will be speaking on the panel “From “SJW” to “Gammon:” Weaponising Political Language.”
Political insults are perhaps the most obvious linguistic manifestation of political differences. They are nothing new, but we should still lament the bitter divisiveness of today’s political language on both sides of the Atlantic. New terms like social justice warrior and alt-right, gammon and remoaner do not shed light on our changing political landscape so much as echo in the darkness. Indeed, differences often seem to have less to do with principled disagreement than mutual incomprehension. This goes much deeper than mere insults. Political assumptions and prejudices are woven into the way we talk about politics.
Not many people who voted for Brexit would describe it as a nostalgic, inward-looking retreat from international cooperation. Not many who voted against it would describe it as a long overdue reassertion of popular democracy. And you can probably get a good idea of how someone voted by asking them to describe the European Union itself: an unaccountable, technocratic bureaucracy, which stifles national sovereignty; or a rules-based international alliance, which facilitates trade and enshrines human rights?
There can, of course, be some agreement on what the EU is and what Brexit means—perhaps after a little haggling over phrasing—but political disagreements are inevitably reflected in language. For example, we can all agree that: “the EU requires its member states to adhere to certain basic rules and principles.” But whether that’s a good, progressive thing or a bad, anti-democratic thing depends on what those rules and principles are, who decides them and how they are enforced. When we get on to discussing those questions, our language is likely to start diverging again.
Again, this is not new. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with using a vocabulary that reflects our politics, signaling where we stand to allies and opponents alike—pro-life, pro-choice etc.—while our meaning is equally clear to all concerned. Of course, it is easier to have a genial discussion with others who use the same vocabulary as us. And—for all the justified concerns about echo chambers and feedback loops—there is nothing wrong with talking to people you agree with, people who speak the same language as you. Even debate is not always about trying to change people’s minds. Sometimes it’s more about honing arguments and firming up convictions, and, to that end, it helps to have a shared language. But even then, we have to be open to subtly different perspectives and understandings, which will be reflected in different ways of putting things.
Whether we are talking among friends or arguing with opponents, in order to have a meaningful discussion, we have to show a certain generosity of spirit. We have to be able to listen to and understand what is being said, without dismissing people or attributing the worst motives to them— because their language betrays them as opponents. At the same time, we have to ensure that our own language does not unnecessarily insult or alienate the people we are talking to. It helps to be curious, to be genuinely interested in how other people think, even—especially—when it seems mad or bad. (Generosity of spirit does not have to stretch to saintliness if people really are mad, but that’s not a healthy starting assumption.)
Clearly, denouncing people as fascists at the first sign that they are to one’s right—or even that they demur from some questionable shibboleth—is not in this spirit. In fact, it is not even properly political. Paradoxically, often the people who seem most animated by politics, and who consider themselves very political, are not actually doing politics at all. They are neither changing minds nor consolidating support, because they withdraw from debate. The clearest example is the no-platforming tactic, originally reserved for the kind of far-right racists who described themselves as fascists—and unacceptably censorious even then—but in recent years used against everyone from mainstream conservatives to trans-skeptical feminists.
This kind of anti-politics has been dominant in left-wing student politics for decades. The left position is taken for granted, rather than seriously debated, which is partly why its concerns have shifted so wildly, seemingly without anyone noticing; the emergence of transgender orthodoxy being the most obvious example. In Britain in the 1980s and 90s, left-wing anti-politics was unwittingly (or perhaps half-wittingly) parodied by a certain type of right-wing student, who would contribute to political meetings simply by bellowing, usually en masse, sound!, if they approved of what was being said, and shame!, if they did not.
Today, of course, all this can be done on the internet, without the need even to attend meetings. The same technology that allows us to debate in new ways with people all over the world can also be used to vocally refuse to debate. Social media have become notorious for intemperate and insulting language wielded in the name of politics. But today’s anti-political language comes with a pseudo-political justification. Objections to uncivil language are dismissed as tone policing, an attempt to stifle the authentic rage of those who claim to be oppressed or to speak for the oppressed. Fuck civility is the slogan du jour. But often the sentiment goes beyond a desire to express righteous anger: there is a weariness at the very idea of having to debate properly.
On a literal level, the surprisingly common phrase I can’t even with this shit makes no sense at all. In practice, it means this thing is so obviously wrong that I should not have to argue about it. It is an appeal to those who share the speaker’s political convictions, an attempt to cement the rightness of those convictions and insulate them from debate. Not only will it not persuade someone who disagrees, however, it does nothing to hone the arguments or firm up the convictions of those who agree.
A similar sentiment underlies the complaint that it’s not my job to educate you about racism/sexism etc. We are expected to accept the moral authority of our unwilling interlocutor, and do the intellectual work ourselves. The arrogance of this posture is surpassed only by its impotence. At most, people will pretend to go along with the speaker’s position for fear of being labeled a bigot. At worst (for everyone), they will respond cynically, with more explicit incivility.
Those of us who believe in the value of politics and meaningful political language do not have to be saints. There is a place for the occasional, well-judged political insult. And, at its best, biting satire can make us think differently, rather than merely scoring cheap points. But we should be wary of debates in which two sides hurl invective at one another, without even understanding what is at stake for the other. Political language is most effective when it can be fully understood by people who disagree with what is being said. When it becomes nothing but a weapon, it tends to fire blanks.
The debate ‘From SJW to Gammon: weaponising political language‘ will be taking place at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Barbican in London on Saturday the 13th October 10:00 – 11:30. For tickets and more information, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.