Monday, 18 February 2013

Why Owen Jones is talking sense about language and the left

There is one thing that almost everyone seems to forget about the poll tax: it wasn't called the poll tax. It was called the community charge. But nobody remembers it as the community charge, do they? The left's preferred name for it - poll tax - entered popular usage and helped create the widespread rejection of the policy. The Scottish left played a particular role in this - and more generally in initiating a mass movement - as it was introduced north of the border a year earlier than in England.

I put 'poll tax' into a search engine and got the Wiki entry for the community charge. Wikipedia calls things by its proper name, so Community Charge (not Poll Tax) is the heading for that page. But the image accompanying the Wiki entry is the one I reproduce here: an official government leaflet which refers to it as The Community Charge (The So-Called 'Poll Tax').

The government's PR people clearly wanted to popularise the proper name for it, but also had to acknowledge the popular term which was in circulation (while being sniffy towards it) because that's what most people knew it as. Indeed the main text makes a point of stressing what its proper name is, rather like a disapproving English teacher correcting a student's sloppy written expression (I'm an English teacher myself, so...).

Similarly, if you do a search for 'bedroom tax' you might discover that the government doesn't call it any such thing. It is in fact the 'under-occupancy penalty'. That's the sort of term that you forget as soon as you have read it. 'Bedroom tax' is much catchier.

Phrases like these have the capacity to mobilise people in opposition. Nobody will ever join a protest against an 'under-occupancy penalty'. But they might join protests against a bedroom tax. Then again they might not - we don't know yet if the bedroom tax will become 'Cameron's poll tax' (there's a powerful bit of political shorthand, by the way) because the jury is out on whether it is a shrewd use of political language. Time will tell.

The war in Iraq, too, was always a linguistic battlefield. Its supporters called it anything except a war. As the Stop the War Coaltion's name indicates, we did the opposite. Language is a vital part of how political controversies are perceived and discussed by large numbers of people. It therefore makes a difference when the left successfully finds an accessible way of talking about issues, framing them in a way that increases our influence in the wider debate.

This is not to subscribe to a kind of linguistic determinism and suggest that language is responsible for the outcome of political struggles. It is merely one factor, but it is one that - as Owen Jones suggests here - can often be neglected on the contemporary Left. Also, it does not mean - or shouldn't mean - a patronising 'dumbing down' whereby we assume that a broad working class audience can't possibly understand words of more than one syllable.

What it means, in short, is that we ditch stale and empty phrases, pointlessly obscure terms, sterile pseudo-academic expression, and retro phrasemongering. The retro fetishism is especially noticeable and problematic. A speaker at Saturday's anti-cuts rally in Newcastle - which was mostly characterised by superb, passionate and crystal-clear speeches - actually uttered the words "TUC general council, get off your knees" (a phrase that should not be heard outside the auditions for an Arthur Scargill biopic). And when almost nobody under the age of 35 has the faintest idea what a 'shop steward' is, why on earth would anyone on the Left use the term? What's wrong with 'workplace reps' or 'grassroots activists'?

Clinging to dead language is not the same thing as principled fidelity to a set of ideas for understanding, and changing, the world. It is possible to remain faithful to a political tradition and communicate with people in a way they understand. Owen is right to stress the importance of this elementary point. He is also correct to cite George Galloway as an example - someone, it should be noted, who is famed for his creative deployment of obscure but vivid verbal expressions (this is a reminder that calling for clear and vigorous communication does not mean putting a strait jacket on the range of vocabulary we can use).

I haven't always agreed with everything Owen has written about language and the left, although the provocative title of my February 2011 post '5 reasons why Owen Jones is talking bollocks about language and the left' was in much the same spirit as the Indy sub-editors responsible for Owen's attention-grabbing headlines, rather than reflecting a massive disagreement. But on this occasion I think he's got it pretty much spot on. It is merely a bonus that he's wound up Labour right-wingers (and some sectarians) who really hate George Galloway.


1 comment:

  1. Language doesn't matter at all. The only thing that matters is espousing socialist policies, which most "left-wingers" are too gutless to do.