Language and The Left

Marlyn Glen

13 August 2012

Language has been described as a “catalyst” in politics, in the struggle between competing forces for power in society.

Thus the traditional orator sought to inspire his or her public audience with words that touched the emotions, to win converts to the cause, or to fortify the faithful.

In complete contrast,  George Orwell’s 1984 saw a totalitarian regime that sought to control how people think ( and therefore ultimately how they behave and react) by restricting the vocabulary of language  through Newspeak,

It was intended to strip away all alternative meaning from everyday language and abstract concepts to leave just simplified words, and so depriving its opponents of the means of arguing against them.


“goodthink” was to hold thoughts and beliefs approved by the regime.

“crimethink” was to hold thoughts and beliefs the regime disapproved of.

Recent decades have seen the advent of the “sound bite” , an oversimplification of a policy in a cleverly crafted phrase for a mass communication audience with an alleged – and unproven - declining length of attention span.

Political speeches as reported on TV became shorter, and then came Twitter  with just 140 characters in which to carry a political message.

In recent years, the restoration of the importance of language in political argument has come to the fore amongst the Left as its electoral fortunes across Europe, with  interludes of an occasional victory. have dropped sharply.

It should be an easy argument for the Left to make.

The Right defend privilege, and the concentration of power and wealth and its inheritance in society.

The Left stands for the public good, opportunity and social justice for all, and bringing down inequality and disadvantage .

However, despite all that, and despite being exposed to facts, logical discussion, and the promise of progressive policies from the Left, many of the potential beneficiaries amongst the electorate vote against their own economic interests and against parties of the Left.

Why is this?

The work of George Lakoff, an American professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, has been enlightening in this area, and his work has enthusiasts in the Labour Party here , as well as amongst the American and European Left.

Lakoff sees choices in politics as being essentially moral ones rather than political ones, made through “frames”.

Frames are nothing new.

They are our structures of thought through which we perceive people and society, and Lakoff suggests that there are two moral systems that create frames.

The Right-Wing frame promotes self–interest, and individual responsibility rather than social responsibility.

On the other side is the progressive/Left frame commits to mutual care and responsibility within the family , the community, the country, the world.

Individuals can inhabit either of these frames exclusively.

They may also choose values from both frames.

Within these frames Lakoff sees language as all-important since words and phrases summon up emotive images in the mind, some in harmony with our frames, some in discord.

The problem for the Left politically is that the Right have been far more skilful in crafting the language of its message so that political debate is conducted to a large extent within the Right wing frame of thought.

It has poured huge resources into polls, surveys, focus groups , think tanks , spokespersons, branding, image-making, interest groups, the Internet, and the media in general  to shape the terms of the debate, not just in language but on issues as well.

And the words and phrases are repeated for days, months and even years, spread by the media until they achieve their objective of becoming everyday words and expressions in everyday use.

Shameful, yes, but shameless and to a fair degree, successful, if you’ve heard on TV or radio or read in the press, phrases such as :

“the nanny state”, “government is the problem, not the solution”, “getting government off the backs of the people” , “public sectors workers and their gold-plated pensions” , “setting private enterprise free”

Lakoff makes the important point that unless you frame yourself through your own language your political opponents will do it through theirs such as the examples just quoted.

The counter argument against them would run along the lines of :

The case for the state, its government and the public sector is clear and unambiguous.

Through them, the common good and the welfare of families and individuals are all advanced through public spending and government legislation.

Successful companies and “self-made” individuals have depended upon the flow of educated workforce from public-sector schools, colleges and universities.

Public transport infrastructure provides the means across which private production travels.

And the public sector helped to bring us all into the world,  through the National Health Service.

Big business should be there to make life better for all, not for just for elite groups.

The private sector needs the public sector.

And as for the supposedly “gold-plated pensions in the public sector”, shouldn’t the question be about why pensions in the private sector are correspondingly lower?

Lakoff outlines a basic principle: “When you are arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame - and it won't be the frame you want.”

Thus, our approach now to “deficit reduction “ should be to talk instead about “jobs and growth “.

To talk of a more efficient management of “cuts” simply  reinforces the conservative mindset.

The Left argues and campaigns by facts and by evidence .

Once people were made aware of their economic reality, the truth, as the old saying goes, would set them free.

However, the problem for the Left is that its analytical approach takes time, and on some issues, a long time.

You can’t soundbite your way to success with this, and insufficient time and space is given by the media to political analysis and politics in general today.

Communication is therefore a long-term effort, and for Lakoff, the moral values that underpin a political policy must always be emphasised :

“Bring back “empathy” — “the most important thing my mother taught me.” Speak of “empathy” for “people who are hurting.” Say again how empathy is basis of democracy (“caring for your fellow citizens”), how we have a responsibility to act on that empathy: social as well as personal responsibility.

“Bring the central role of empathy in democracy to the media.

“And make it clear that personal responsibility alone is anti-patriotic……. the opposite of what this country is fundamentally about.

"It’s patriotic to care…..

“That is the first step in telling our most important untellable truths.

“And it is a necessary step in loosening the conservative grip on public discourse.”

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