Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Learning the language of populism - a lesson for the elite

I've been curious about the way in which language is used to, as the trendies put it, 'other' people - make them out to be pariahs. Most commonly this language is used to validate the prejudice of its user. Take this example:

The anonymous author of this comment doesn't like vaping and explains why (although heaven knows where they got the science from - Daily Telegraph maybe). Which is all fine, even if I disagree. What's interesting is the final sentence - "...it does seem to be the chavs who use them most."

Imagine - and this is Bradford so entirely possible - if most of the vapers this person saw were from our fine city's Asian population. You can be absolutely sure that, not only would the commenter be unlikely to use the term 'paki' but the newspaper would have taken down the comment sharpish had they done so. Yet comment after comment can cheerfully use the term 'chav' without facing any sort of opprobrium.

Now you know me well enough to understand that I don't see this as a problem - people shouldn't be punished for what they say only, should it harm others, for what they do. We've created this idea of 'hate speech', embellished and polished it to the point where things that are merely stupidly unpleasant become 'hateful' - we're encouraged to report all of this stuff to the cops without actually knowing at what point 'hate speech' becomes a 'hate crime'. Worst of all we've begun to use this as justification for considering anyone not sharing the established view of what is 'hateful' as beyond the pale - xenophobes, bigots, ignorant. Or in the words of the commenter - chavs.

As a result of this enforced language moderation, we are shocked when people like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump or Katie Hopkins seem to get through to a load of ordinary people by ignoring what the elite has decided is 'hateful'. We assume that this is hate finding hate and stop there (hoping that there aren't enough of these nasty xenophobes, bigots and ignoramuses to actually get any power - risky given Brexit). We even misunderstand what people hear:

This kind of liberal dismissiveness is common but does not reflect the way that many Trump supporters actually talk about his statements. To use some terms from linguistics that actually may apply to the candidate, we can observe that Trump supporters are highly cognizant that what his words denote (building a wall, for instance) are not as important as what they index (his stance toward the world: that he is against the status quo, that he is willing to offend, that he is not phony, that he is willing to discuss racial animosities that other politicians dance around).

This conforms well to the way in which many in public health believe that, while they are immune to the blandishments of advertising, others (by which they mean those sort of people who use e-cigarettes and go to KFC) are not able to resist. The result being calls for all sorts of advertising bans and marketing restrictions.

If us liberals - and I use this in its proper English sense rather than its corrupted American meaning - are to make our case, we need to understand how folk like Trump, Hopkins and Farage communicate. It's as much about positioning as it is about content. We're familiar with the phrase 'sticking it to the man' but what we've not spotted yet is that we are 'the man'. And this is hard for folk who consider themselves to be bang on trend, caring, socially responsible citizens.

Keven Meagher wrote an article in Labour Uncut that set it out:

You don’t own an Apple Mac. You can’t taste the difference between Guatemalan and Colombian coffee beans. You voted to leave the European Union and you don’t regret it one tiny bit.

You want to buy British and be proud of your country. You like your politicians in suits. You wonder why we can’t just jail or expel Muslim fanatics who hate us.

You drink lager or real ale, not craft beer. If you go out for a meal, it’s to a Harvester pub, not a bijou Vietnamese canteen.

You’ve started shopping in Aldi and Lidl these past few years. You think climate change is overblown. Overseas aid is misspent and the benefits system is a soft touch.

The problem is that plenty of people "of the left" simply failed to get what Meagher was saying. These folk chose to think that he was arguing for an anti-immigrant, anti-union, union flag wrapped policy platform rather than making a plea to change how we talk to people, to learn the lesson of Trump and Farage, to listen to folk rather than lecture them about their failings and inadequacies.

During the referendum campaign I was asked to speak with the Denholme Elders, a group of old people who meet at the village's Mechanics Institute. It was inevitable that the discussion moved to immigration and I made clear that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, we'd still have significant immigration. One woman, not liking what I'd said, told us a story of how her daughter had been insulted and spat at by some young Asian men in Bradford. This tale resulted in nods and murmers of agreement - immigration was a problem.

Now I could have simply moved on and, in the manner of Gordon Brown, ranted about Little Englander bigots once I'd left. Indeed that's how the bulk of the commentariat feel about these situations. How does this help? Isn't it better to say to them - "those young Asian lads aren't immigrants, they were born here and it's their city too - their nasty attack on your daughter is our problem but not something made worse or better by immigration." After a bit of argument back and forth, most people in the room accepted that the bad behaviour and criminality of some Asian lads isn't resolved by stopping future immigration.

Now I'm not suggesting that all these folk have become open borders advocates but they went away having had a conversation - on their terms - about immigration. None of this patronising "how can you think immigration is a bad thing" language that so many use and a recognition that immigration should never be used as a prod to nudge people into changing the fundamentals of their culture. If anyone changes it should be the immigrant not the folk those immigrants have come to live amongst.

We've spent a couple of decades sneering at white working class culture - attacking its diet, its music, its dress and its language. And at the same time we've rammed the celebration of other cultures - food, dance, dress and festival - in the faces of these people whose lifestyle we disparage and dismiss. We need to stop a moment and think what we're doing. And recognise that what we call promoting order, what we call public health, and what we call multiculturalism - all this represents a consistent and unjustified attack on the traditions of England's working class.

The people many of you call xenophobes and bigots, the folk you dismiss as stupid - even morons, are no longer there to be herded. Unless we change our language, recognise the effectiveness of that blunt incorrectness used by Trump, Farage, Hopkins and others, we will see these people continue their support for such populists - they are, after all, the only politicians actually listening to them. The only ones offering anything to the chavs.

We have to learn the language of populism, to be less sensitive, to reject the word police and to start painting - in blunt terms - a picture of a society that celebrates the beery, smokey, loud culture of the chav just as much as it celebrates the cultures of Muslims, Hindus and Jamaicans. And a society that doesn't condemn the simple pleasures of a pint, a fag, a burger and some banter.



Sackerson said...

Yes, it starts with open conversation.

Sean MacCartan said...

I seriously assumed he/she was referring to flatulence. Read it again.

Chris Oakley said...

A very well argued post that I suspect will unfortunately pass over the heads of those who we might hope to effect change. With regard to the UK establishment I am at a loss to understand why it is so collectively stupid. If you have an answer, then I would love to hear it. Especially if it sheds any light on why the Conservative party continues to accept the blatantly corrupt and counterproductive disgrace that is the DoH and its ongoing abuse the UK tax payer. Personally, I despise it and any politician that continues to support it.