Friday, June 16, 2006
Language and Politics
Lakoff argues that language is the key entry-point politicians use to infiltrate our minds and that the right have tended to be more resourceful in locating the appropriate codes. Each word is freighted with myriad connotations which spread meanings through the recipients mind. Some have 'good' resonances and persuade; other have negative ones and do not. Words, in other words, in politics become shorthand for networks of linked ideas. Lakoff argues the rightwing in the US have invested heavily into think- tanks and policy institutes which search for the right policies and the right language while the left have ignored the problem and lost out as a result.
The right's 'worldview', according to Lakoff, is that of the 'strict father': the world is a dangerous place and children have to 'made' to be good through discipline, punishment where necessary, self reliance and the acceptance of moral authority. People who have achieved self reliance through wealth are seen as having achieved virtue; meanwhile government programmes 'spoil' people by making them dependent. The right choose words which resonate with the architecture of this model. The War on Terror, for example, frames the idea of a legitimate national assault on the wholly unacceptable enemies of he motherland. Swarzenegger arrived with the huge advantage of a language embodied in his screen personna: he's going to take discipline to those lacking in virtue whether they like it or not.
The worldview of the left, on the other hand, is that of the 'nurturant parent' which assumes, fundamentally, that people are born good and that with empathy and love they can be formed into decent members of society. A key element is that people should care not just for themselves but for others too. Lakoff argues the left have been out-thought and out spent in the US and that the Democrats seem not to have yet pulled out of the trough into which Bush has cast them. It occurs to me, however, that the right's worldview is easier to sell as it is simple, contains drama and the emotional satisfaction of vilifying others- the poor - while the left's is more complex and harder to grasp.
In the UK, Blair has shown that a gifted politician of the left can find the language; the letter to Michael Foot, written by Blair in 1982, reveals how his mind was feeling for such an articulation even then. But now we see the desperate need for renewal as Blair's language-through his own overuse and abuse of it- has lost its power to move and is forced to give ground to a leader who seems to be finding the right words, embodying the right ideas for the current state of UK politics.
I think it was by Martin Wainwright in The Guardian, ages ago now. It contained other funny examples as well as the ones I gave.
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