In 2016, it became clear just how debased the language of public life has become. This year, language was rarely used to communicate ideas or mount a serious argument. Rather, in the run-up to the EU referendum in Britain, both sides used vacuous hyperbole that they didn’t really take seriously. And in the American presidential debates, politics became a pantomime, with both of the main protagonists making little effort to rise above the levels of insults and invective.
Even George Orwell, who wrote at length about the degradation and manipulation of public language, would have been shocked by the terms and tone of political debate in America and Britain this year. In his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English language’, Orwell observed that, ‘in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible’. He was particularly perturbed by the way political rhetoric was deployed to obscure reality.
The degradation of public discourse, and the use of words to mystify, distract from and evade certain issues, has been a feature of political life for some time. Today, terms like ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘best practice’ are used to depoliticise decision-making. Technocratic management-speak means politicians don’t really have to take responsibility for their actions. Words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘support’ invariably signal their opposite: yet more bureaucratic intrusion into people’s lives. The poor have been rebranded ‘the vulnerable’, meaning that social policy has been displaced by a more medicalised form of therapeutic governance into the lives of less well-off.
More recently, however, political jargon hasn’t only been about obscuring the issues at stake. Increasingly, new political language is driven by a desire to alter people’s actual values and attitudes, through altering the meaning of words and drawing up new speech rules. In recent decades, the language, values and ideals of the West’s political and cultural establishments were rarely challenged explicitly. That changed this year, as public hostility towards elite values gathered pace. As a result, in 2016 the urge to police speech, and by extension what values people hold, acquired an unprecedented momentum.
The war of words
As I argued in my book The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, the language of public life often tells us a lot about how politically healthy or exhausted a society is. Some of today’s most widely used terms by policymakers — diversity, transparency, social inclusion, ‘adding value’, stakeholders, sustainability — lack substance and precision. And yet despite their vacuous character, these terms have been unquestionably adopted by many people. The widespread use of technocratic verbiage, and the loss of an ideas-led public language, is testimony to the formidable cultural power of certain institutions — in particular the media and the academy, where many of these terms originate.
The secret weapon of the West’s new political and cultural oligarchy is language. It may not be able to inspire people’s hearts or win political arguments — but it can still exercise a disproportionate influence over the use of language. Language and the policing of verbal communication have become crucially important for guiding behaviour and shaping attitudes. The suppression of certain words and the invention of new ones have become integral to the broader project of social engineering. That’s why so much energy is devoted to linguistic policing and the codification of new terms, especially on campuses.
In their fascinating study, Forbidden Words: Taboo and Censoring Language, Keith Allan and Kate Burridge argue that where traditional censoring activities were about maintaining the status quo, what came to be known as PC language was more about promoting political and social change. The attempt to change language was motivated by the objective of changing how people behave and how they identify. Allan and Burridge observe that campus policing has been ‘extremely successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour’. Altering linguistic practice serves as a prelude to changing the way people think, and finally the way they act.
People’s attitude towards the spontaneous exchange of views has altered as society has become increasingly sensitive about which words are ‘appropriate’ and which words are ‘inappropriate’. The very use of the terms appropriate and inappropriate in relation to speech is striking, because of how diffuse and uncertain those terms are. However, the question of what is appropriate and inappropriate can, and often is, answered in advance: these terms are really about saying, ‘Watch your words’.
Many critics of PC codes concentrate their fire on the practice of coercing people to adopt a language that feels alien to them. Often, the criticism of PC gets sidetracked by ridiculous examples, such as when phrases like ‘Chinese whispers’ are pathologised on the basis that they are racist. But what is really significant about linguistic policing is not its tabooing of certain words but the constraints it imposes on free and spontaneous communication. That ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ have become the keywords in the university censor’s dictionary is a reminder that very few words can now be assumed to be beyond contestation.
Consider the recently invented phrase, ‘post-truth’. It has been selected as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. According to the Oxford University Press, after the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, the use of ‘post-truth’ sky-rocketed.