Many will have seen the recent story of Jacob Rees-Mogg MP issuing a language guide to his office staff. Ostensibly this is about cutting waffle and meaningless fluff. While I’m not clear how his banning of the word ‘equal’ fits into that, I can understand the general impulse - corporate-speak or meaningless waffle are a pain. But that’s not the problem. Putting aside the far more important question of the actual impact of government policy for a second, it’s the increasingly warlike language used that I want to strike from the record.
Why so many fight and war metaphors in our politics? And more than that, why do we need war metaphors in the reporting of politics? Everyone is always ‘firing back’, ‘hitting back’, ‘returning fire’, and so on.
These words matter. Most of the time, we’re just talking about a disagreement. Some serious, some contrived, but essentially differences of opinion. Unless you’re actually talking about a crime or a war, no one is actually fighting, shooting, blasting, slaying, smashing, crushing, devastating, eviscerating, destroying or otherwise obliterating anyone with arguments.
Recently I attended a conference about equalities and diversity. We discussed that while we need to address bigoted or ignorant language, that is merely the symptom, not the cause of prejudiced attitudes. I think you can apply that lesson to so many language debates. Particularly with fighting talk like this, it overheats so many debates, presenting them as binary and zero-sum. Everyone who disagrees with you becomes at best an opponent, and at worst an enemy. An enemy is not someone you can reason with nor listen to, but must be ‘defeated’. To quote the comedian Jon Stewart: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing”.
We fall into this habit too often in charity campaigns too. Calls to ‘join the fight’ can motivate people. But language which sets up a ‘righteous vs enemy dynamic’ stops us seeing those who think differently to us as rounded, whole people who – crucially – might be persuaded by good arguments, rather than ‘salvos’.
I’m not saying we always have to be polite, or even nice. On many occasions, blunt or vivid words make our point more effectively, in addition from our actions. But does it always have to be a fight? I’d love to hear what you think, so drop me a line if you’d like to talk about it.
Image by Botana.