Political language is broken and we need to fix it
How our political vocabulary has been emptied of all meaning
Language is the tool we rely on to help us shape, share, and understand ideas. The more effective our language is, and the better we use it, the clearer our understanding will be on the ideas we exchange with others. In common discourse, political language has been obscured to confuse the definitions of words, making it more difficult for many people to clearly discuss and interpret political matters.
To rectify this problem, we need to explore the political language we use in closer detail.
To anyone paying attention to politics or social issues in the media, the socio-political language we use today is, at best, unclear and, at worst, deliberately misused so that vital information is lost in transmission. Groups of people are lumped together as either in-crowd or out-crowd, based on arbitrary labels, and words are used to evoke emotional, rather than intellectual responses—helping to reinforce everyday propaganda. The result of this is that many of the words we use in describing political ideas are broken.
To illustrate this point, in 2016 it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to believe in gender equality, but to also reject the label “feminism”. In a recent survey of 8,000 Britons, 67% believe in gender equality, but only 7% describe themselves as feminist. Did 60% of respondents not understand the question?
Since feminism is ultimately a movement for gender equality, I propose that the word “feminism” has become too broad as to be effectively broken. It no longer represents its original meaning and according to survey respondents can mean anything from “strength” to “bitchy”, depending on the person hearing it. But this article is not about gender politics, it’s about language.
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
― George Orwell, 1984
George Orwell wrote a great deal about language, in both his novels and essays. He understood the importance of clear language in communication, and how vague language served as a hiding place for insincerity, doublethink, and plain fraud.
In this same way, the language used in the media often oversimplifies political groups, and political stances, in order to steer complex issues into a dumbed-down, two-sided argument.
A tale of two sides
Simplifying discussions on complex issues down to two sides is nothing new. Even the Bible leaves little room for fence sitting: I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelations 3:15–17).
During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. said “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”, and more recently in global politics, George W. Bush said “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
Those with a political agenda to pursue will always seek to create two sides, and establish whether you are on theirs or not. This results in dualistic divides being drawn on issues that are, in reality, far more nuanced.
Two party political systems—as in the U.S.A, and the U.K.*—further exacerbate this problem by forcing voters to choose either one extreme or the other when their own views may be far more centrist. As a result, individual political views are often degraded down to one of two labels, The Left and The Right.
* In the UK, every single election since the 1930s has been won by either the Labour or Conservative parties.
The struggle between Left and Right
The most obvious example of linguistic ambiguity in our political language is the distinction between the Left and the Right. And it’s easy to see why people get so confused.
The terms Left and Right first appeared during the French Revolution, when the citizens of France opposed the reigning monarchy. Members of the National Assembly were divided, with those who supported the king sat to the right, and those who supported the revolutionists sat to the left.
But in present-day language, the terms Left and Right have been hijacked, and are used excessively to describe an individual's position on almost every single matter. From environmental issues (the Left being advocates of the environment, while the Right deny climate change); the ongoing debate on abortion (the Left advocating choice, and the Right advocating “life”); to war (the Left opposing war, and the Right often supporting this “necessary evil”).
But complex issues involving large groups of people with conflicting interests seldom fall into just two groups.
Strictly speaking, the terms Left and Right are now used to describe a person’s economic values, and it would be helpful to us if we were to preserve these definitions.
The modern-day Leftist
Leftists, generally speaking, prefer to live in a society that provides a basic level of provision and security for each of its members—a social safety-net. This usually includes things like publicly-funded education and healthcare, paid parental leave, unemployment benefits, and most recently, a basic living wage. Leftism also implies a degree of legislative limits on trade, preventing any one organisation from becoming a monopoly, exploiting its workforce, or some other resource.
Socialism is an example of Leftism at its most extreme.
The modern-day Rightist
Rightists, on the other hand, prefer to live in a society that imposes few limitations on their own personal success. They are more comfortable with starting on an uneven playing field and embrace a certain amount of natural competition. Rightists will typically prefer laissez-faire (deregulated) trading and privatisation of services such as education and healthcare.
Corporate capitalism is an example of Rightism at its most extreme.
The struggle between the individual and the group
Left and Right is not the only way in which two individuals’ views can differ, and a great deal of insight can be gained when we also understand how a person views established authority. This distinction is more relevant than the Left-Right debate, though you seldom hear these terms being used in the media.
Authoritarianism is what happens when people hand too much power over to authority figures, trust them too much, and permit them to do whatever they want. Like most people, authoritarians seek social harmony but believe the best way to achieve this is through conformity and belief in a common ideology.
Visualised as a spectrum, those who are high on the authoritarian scale usually put a great deal of effort into making sure other people conform to their way of thinking. They are usually happy to fall in line under their recognised authority figures regardless of what those figures actually say or do. This can become a self-destructive behaviour, as they legitimise authorities even when they trespass on their own civil liberties. Authoritarians typically see no problem in big government, allowing established authority to influence almost every aspect of their lives.
Authoritarians are more likely to think in collectivist terms—thinking of people as groups, rather than being individuals in their own right. This can lead to individuals being alienated or mistreated, simply because of the group they belong to, and not because of something they themselves have done. The historic segregation of blacks in the U.S.A. is an example of this way of thinking.
Authoritarians place a high value on conformity and conventionalism within a group—preferring to be seen as normal rather than as an individual. And since the guidelines for what’s appropriate comes from further up the authority chain, this can be viewed as a top-down form of control.
On the opposite end of the scale from Authoritarianism, lies Libertarianism.
Libertarianism is based on the view that each person is an individual and should be treated on their own individual merit. Typically, they place a high degree of emphasis on equality, personal freedom, and individual liberty.
Like authoritarians, most libertarians seek social harmony but see it being achieved through individual freedom and mutual respect. The libertarian attitude can be summarised as having sense of live and let live.
As opposed to authoritarianism, libertarianism tries to limit established authority from claiming too much power by promoting and protecting freedom of speech, freedom of press, and other fundamental rights, and restricting the amount of control the government may seize. The libertarian ideal can be viewed as a bottom-up hierarchy, where the people control the government.
Often, we hear the word “liberal” being used in the media. Libertarianism and classical liberalism are at the same end of the same scale, and only differ by degree—libertarianism being the more extreme form.
Two axes, 4 types
So far, we’ve explored two axes along which individuals generally differ that allow us to better understand their point of view, and perhaps predict how groups of people are likely to lean on certain matters.
Visualised here, these two axes plotted on a chart reveal four areas, or basic archetypes that a person may be classified under. Libertarian Left, Libertarian Right, Authoritarian Left, and Authoritarian Right.
This model is referred to as the Political Compass, and the creators of this model have written a lot of informative information on their website (linked below).
As previously mentioned, political alignment is often over-simplified down to a 1-dimension scale, which blurs the distinctions between individuals. The Political Compass adds clarity, by providing a second dimension to the model.
As with all models, this model doesn’t show the full picture, and I feel a great deal can be gained from extending this two-dimensional model further.
The Progressive — Conservative scale
In addition to the Left-Right, Authoritarian-Libertarian axes, individuals also differ along the axis of Progressivism and Conservativism, another two words that have become effectively broken in political discourse.
Conservatism is the tendency for people to prefer the status quo over drastic change. Typically, conservatives will want to preserve social institutions end establishments where possible, and take slow and steady steps towards improvement.
In a sense, conservatives can be thought of as looking to the past for guidance. They respect the legitimacy of established ways of doing things, of past agreements, and old traditions. This can provide a lot of much-desired stability, but conservatives can also be guilty of allowing the past to control them.
Counter to conservativism, progressivism is the tendency for people to advocate large or complete social reform, seeking a completely new way of doing things where the current ways are insufficient.
Progressives do not tend to place a great deal of importance on tradition and old establishments, but seek to create something new that’s more relevant to themselves in their own time and place.
In this sense, progressives can be thought of as looking to the future for guidance. Though this allows for a great deal of flexibility in realising change, progressives can also be guilty of being too reactionary and fickle.
The Radical-Moderate scale
A fourth way in which individuals may differ is the extremity of their own desires and beliefs, and the extent to which they would be willing to enact them. Each person will have his or her own feelings on how important any given matter is. Subjects that are trivial generally don’t do much to change a person’s behaviour, whereas subjects viewed as having life or death significance will evoke a far more extreme reaction from the same individual.
Moderates on a given matter are typically not quick to act or speak up. These are not the people who will take to the streets in protest, or write wordy letters to their local representatives. Unless the stakes are raised, moderates will generally go along with the ebbs and flows of political change. Most people are moderate on the majority of political issues.
On the other end of this scale are Radicals, who have very strong beliefs on one or an array of political matters, and will give a lot of their own time and energy to see that their views are heard and acted on.
A radical individual may be willing to take to the streets in protest, join political movements, or even resort to violence if they believe it’s necessary to push the changes they wish to see.
By simply acknowledging these two additional axes (Conservative-Progressive, and Moderate-Radical) in political discussions, we gain substantially more information to help us further understand particular issues than by simply labelling everything as right or left.
Some issues in the context of these 4 political axes
Party politics is awash with misnomers, partly because many contemporary political parties do not resemble the ideals after which they are named. For example, the U.K. Conservative party (Tories) has, in recent years, acted out some unusually progressive changes including near abolishment of the NHS, the introduction of hydraulic fracking to the British countryside, and, of course, facilitated a referendum to leave the EU. Each of these was arguably a progressive move, as defined as having little regard for established institutions and traditions.
Rather than mislabeling them as “conservative”, the Tory party of late can be better defined as authoritarian, right-wing, progressive, and significantly radical in the changes they’ve made.
U.K. Tories often dismiss Labour party motions as leftist, despite the U.K. Labour party holding a right-of-center position. In reality, the U.K. Labour are simply relative left when compared to the Tories.
The U.K. Liberal Democrats should, by definition, occupy a libertarian-leftist stance. But in recent years, they have been more akin to the Tory party; authoritarian, right-wing, conservative, and moderate.
In the U.S.A, the Republican party was historically libertarian, voting in favour of the emancipation of slaves, and of womens’ suffrage. On the other hand, Democrats voted against these libertarian bills, and sought to limit government control and further their own wealth (right wing). These days the Republican party holds a drastically authoritarian, right-wing stance on most issues, including immigration and capital punishment, whereas Democrats are a slightly more leftist, though authoritarian bunch.
This misalignment between party names, their history, and the ideals they now stand for only further confuse political discussion, again reinforcing the need for a clearer language.
Contemporary social politics, and so-called liberals
In some respects, so-called libertarian progressives these days are like old nuns teaching in a catholic school—they alone are the gatekeepers of their own rules of propriety. They enforce their rules on others around them, and those who disagree with them are singled-out as a rude underclass.
Recently, in Edinburgh, a group of protesters prevented a pro-life speaker from being allowed to speak at the University of Edinburgh because they disagreed with the speaker’s views. Being privy to some of the discussions had by a few of the protesters, I’m aware that these people think of themselves as progressive libertarians and are unaware of the contradictions of their actions. As discussed earlier, one of the chief virtues of libertarianism is individual freedom of speech—even when you disagree with the person speaking. I would expect that these protesters would score highly on the authoritarian scale, and would be quite uncomfortable with many true libertarian values.
Much of what is being called leftist or liberal (libertarian) these days is only libertarian by name and is actually a series of authoritarian progressivist movements.
Vox has a great piece on this phenomenon, which I’ve linked below.
As a Scottish native, I’ve taken part in my fair share of discussions on the subject of Scottish independence, and I’ve found myself arguing for both sides (originally against, later for).
Arguments for Scottish independence are often framed as leftist or liberal, partly because the Scottish National Party are fairly left of center and are at least perceived as libertarian. But in the discussions I’ve had, it seems clear that the yes/no divide exists even among libertarian, leftist voters. This difference among a seemingly homogeneous group becomes easier to understand when we consider the additional two axes mentioned previously.
Above all else, Scottish independence is a drastically progressive notion, which involves reneging on centuries-old agreements and breaking ancient establishments, in favour of creating a new establishment and a presumed brighter, independent future. This step, if taken, comes with a significant amount of risk and uncertainty, and for many sympathetic Scots the thought of losing their pension, job, or mortgage was too high a price to pay for the proposed gains.
Scottish independence then, is not so much a difference of leftist and rightist values, or authoritarian and libertarian values, it is the difference between progressive and conservative, moderate and radical.
The current Syrian refugee crisis has brought out some of the worst in European politics. This is another divisive issue that seems to have been reduced down to a Left-Right divide, with those on the Left in support of helping refugees, and those on the Right against.
But rather than being exemplary of Right wing values, rejecting refugees is much more typical of authoritarian thinking. As mentioned already, authoritarians are much more prone to think in collective terms than libertarians, and this is clearly an example of collectivism; A sense of “these people are not our own”, rather than a more libertarian “these individuals need our help”.
Providing support for refugees clearly comes at a cost to the country, and so there is still space for Leftist and Rightist dispute on this matter. But it’s also important to keep in mind that the difference in individual opinions are multi-faceted, and we should not over-simplify the debate to hide the other forces at play.
When discussing social and political issues, the richer and better-defined our vocabulary, the more effectively we can progress discussion and avoid falling into traps and disputes over misunderstood terms. This is the exact opposite of what media outlets and politicians want because adding complexity to a debate makes it harder for them to influence readers and voters. This offers an additional challenge because it falls on us to extrapolate the distinctions from the over-simplified information that is presented to us.
But forcing clearer distinctions in our language is something we absolutely must do! As the late comedian George Carlin said:
“The quality and thoughts of our ideas, can only be as good as the quality and thoughts of our language.”
― George Carlin
The English language has arguably the richest vocabulary of any modern language. By being attentive to how it is used, each of us can become more fluent and effective in our own political environments.
Olchawski, J. (2016) Sex equality state of the nation 2016. Available at: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Sex-Equality-State-of-the-Nation-2016-FINAL.pdf (Accessed: 9 October 2016).
The Political Compass (Survey)
The Authoritarians (Book)
The Great Debate (Book)
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