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Why political language matters When politicians talk in abstractions, politics itself begins to lose coherence

Trump refused to obey the conventions of politics and speak its jargon. Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / GETTY

Trump refused to obey the conventions of politics and speak its jargon. Credit: Jim Watson / AFP / GETTY


March 1, 2021   5 mins

At the beginning of the 1930s, Britain was in chaos. At home, millions were out of work, while in Europe, Fascists were starting to bully their way into power. The leading intellectuals of the day, including TS Eliot and FR Leavis, were filled with pessimism; hope, if it could be found, lay in the restoration of order and tradition. A younger generation, however, including poets WH Auden and Stephen Spender, put their faith in Communism. But with war approaching, even they would end up profoundly disillusioned with what Auden remembered as a “low, dishonest decade”.

Writing in the 1920s, DH Lawrence had foreseen it all. The son of a miner, he hated industrialism, which he believed had “frustrated that sense of community that would make us all unite in pride and dignity”. Politics had no solutions; it dealt in meaningless abstraction, rather than ordinary feeling. Talking with political activists, Lawrence observed, “is like trying to have a human conversation with the letter x in algebra”.

Exiled from Britain after the First World War, he set off an a “savage pilgrimage” before tuberculosis finally caught up with him. By 1930, he was dead. It was up to a new generation of writers, each in their own way inspired by Lawrence, to respond to his challenge to politics. They are the subject of Marc Stears’s new book Out of the Ordinary, which shows how the likes of George Orwell, JB Priestley, and Dylan Thomas rejected the abstract ideologies of their day. In using a language that was concrete and specific, Stears argues, they created a new vision for politics.

A political academic and former speechwriter for Ed Miliband, Stears believes that revisiting the output of these writers in the 1940s can provide a solution to our polarised present moment. The technocratic politics of the Blair and Cameron years have left Britain divided. Populism, both on the Left and Right, has failed to offer a convincing solution to years of economic inequality and political gridlock. For Stears, the answer is a politics of what he calls “the ordinary” and “everyday life”.

In Stears’s account, Orwell, Priestley and Thomas rejected Lawrence’s “abstract idealisms”, refusing to fall, as Thomas puts it, “for the latest isms like pups for rubber bones”. For Orwell, vague and abstract language was the source of his era’s “political chaos”. It allowed politicians to manipulate the truth, and in its worst instances, to justify murder.

They eschewed the pessimism of the Right, too, and what they saw as grandiose ideas of Britishness. Priestley attacked what he called “Big Englanders”, Orwell hated “Rule Britannia” and flag-waving officer types, while Thomas loathed Elgar.

Instead, they aspired to a language that was tangible and rooted in people’s everyday lives and experiences. For Thomas, “the everyday” lay in memories of his childhood in Swansea: “the pubs and clubs, billiards rooms, promenades, and the suburban nights”. For Priestley, in “filling stations and factories”, “arterial and by-pass roads”, and “bungalows with tiny garages”, while Orwell associated ordinariness with “solid breakfasts, gloomy Sundays, smoky towns, winding roads, and green fields”.

When the Second World War broke out, Stears argues, these writers were forced to reconcile their sense of unease with conventional ideas of Britishness. In doing so, they turned their commitment to specificity into something of popular substance. Priestley’s Postscripts challenged Churchill for radio listeners; Orwell commissioned programmes for the BBC in India; Thomas wrote radio plays and film scripts.

After the War, however, the country failed to unite around this vision: Attlee built the welfare state from the top down, while successive governments — both Labour and Conservative — enfeebled local government. Politics become increasingly technocratic and distant from everyday concerns. All the things that once connected politics to everyday life, from trade union branches to local newspapers, began to disappear.

This is a compelling account, but how applicable are the insights of these long-dead writers to contemporary politics? Today’s politics has arguably become more, not less, abstract. Indeed, we live in an increasingly abstract world, where things that were once solid — from telephone booths to paper money — have melted into an intangible digital world.

In his book, Stears recalls a conversation with a Labour pollster who, in the 2015 election campaign, told him that people valued spending time with loved ones more than any other issue. Nothing else came close. When Stears asked him why the party didn’t make this more of a focus, he was told this — the issue that matters most to people — isn’t what politics is about.

But if politics feels distant from people’s everyday preoccupations, it is because its language so often fails to connect. Both Left and Right talk of “equality”, “responsibility” and “aspiration”: vague, abstract words with no relevance to people’s lived experience. Even when politicians try to resolve these problems, their language fails to bring ordinary people onside. “Social mobility” and “levelling up” are phrases almost unheard outside the corridors of Westminster.

This linguistic emptiness means that politics is, as the philosopher Simone Weil wrote, increasingly “peopled exclusively by myths and monsters”. The slipperiness of abstract words means they can “represent for us an absolute reality”, while, at the same time, “mean anything whatsoever”. We reach for abstractions to explain systems of belief and ideologies: “fascism”, “sovereignty”, “patriotism”. But too often these words are manipulated to smear political opponents or shut down debate. When this happens, the common ground erodes and polarisation becomes inevitable.

The Conservative Party’s risible “war on woke” is a case in point. “Woke” is a meaningless expression often used by proponents as a commitment to vaguely progressive ideals. For its detractors, however, “woke” is nothing short of the 21st century’s answer to Bolshevism. If we cannot even agree the meaning of a word, substantive argument becomes impossible. A “war on woke” is like trying to catch a phantom. And when only 4% of the public know what a culture war actually is, the chase is futile, too.

And if conventional political language loses its purchase on ordinary life, voters will look for unconventional politicians to fill the vacuum. When Donald Trump, for instance, pledged to “build a big, beautiful wall”, his language couldn’t have been more concrete. This was ordinary language at its most ordinary. Trump was electable because he refused to obey the conventions of politics and speak its jargon.

That isn’t to say that Trump-style populists are the solution to this crisis. Instead, if we are to develop a politics that can connect with voters’ lived experience, specificity is a place to start. Rather than gesturing vaguely to “community”, for example, we should talk about the institutions that facilitate one: affordable housing, for instance; access to fields or parks; pubs, shops, places of worship and schools.

Politics will never be entirely free of abstractions, of course. For politicians, abstract language will always remain a useful tool to paper over the divisions that run through parties. Concrete language leads to firm promises, which are hard to keep. And disregarding all vague words would, as Orwell acknowledges, lead to a kind of “political quietism” where big ideas could not be debated at all. What’s more, phrases like “the ordinary” and “the everyday” are themselves abstractions, with different associations for different people.

But a concern for the everyday would, in Stears’s view, bring politics closer to people’s lived experiences. He believes it might help convince them that policy is not something irrelevant and aloof from their daily lives, but something that can be created by them, and in their own image.

In the meantime, what’s certain is that too often, politics feels like a poor substitute for the things that actually concern us: decent work, relationships, health, and a good place to live. If we could move politics closer to these concerns, we would go some way to solving many of the great challenges of our age.


Zachary Hardman is a writer at The Draft.

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Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago

In what could have been a thoughtful essay, the writer can’t avoid the temptation of appearing progressive by using the phrase “risible war on woke”. The war on woke is anything but risible; it is a belated but vital fight to preserve one of the fundamental values of open societies: freedom of speech.
if people cannot agree on what woke is, that is not evidence of the absence of wokedom. Woke is a shame-shifting amorphous ideology, slippery and evasive. That does not make it harmless. There were many definitions of a witch in the Middle Ages. The was irrelevant to the poor woman being burnt alive in public.
4% people according to the authors know what woke is. Ask people a different question: do you feel free to give your opinions on matters of sex, gender, race, nationhood, immigration etc? Then you will know how many bear the brunt of wokehood.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

I quite like your analogy. If you refuse to define woke it’s very easy to accuse people of it: the war on wokedom is the new war on witchcraft. Anyone can be a witch, or woke, if you don’t define what it means.
I don’t think you meant it that way – but it makes sense.
Do you have any evidence to suggest the majority of the population don’t feel able to express their opinions on matters of sex, gender, race, nationhood or immigration? I read and hear plenty and various opinions on these things every day.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Where, outside of the nationalist websites, do you read about the rejection of the foreign colonisation of this land?

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

Where, outside of nationalist websites, do you read anything about the so called “foreign colonisation” of this land?
Fixed it for you!
We really are not becoming a foreign colony – the presence of wealthy foreign media moguls, and oligarchs, (with enormous political influence) notwithstanding.
But perhaps we are becoming a colony of the super-rich?

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

All you have done is demonstrated your Anglo-hatred.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

There was plenty of anti-immigration rhetoric from the Leave campaign and Nigel Farage was writing about immigration in the Telegraph recently, first two examples I could think of. Unless you’re including Telegraph Online as a ‘nationalist website’.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

There is a reason Farage always comes up when talking about immigration. He was one of the few brave enough to speak out. The vote showed how many had sympathy with the view though.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Micheal Lucken

Targets on net immigration were Conservative Party Policy for many years and taking control of our borders is a favourite Johnson phrase. It’s absurd to claim that discussion of immigration has been ‘cancelled’ in the UK.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Discussion of immigration is everywhere. Fortunately, fulmination about “foreign colonisation” is mostly limited to far-right cranks. Though I suppose it could be all over the telegraph online, as I can’t see behind the paywall.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

So today here are around 14 million non-native people in this small island. Why are you pretending that does not constitute a process of foreign colonisation?
What is your ethnicity?

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Not the same thing at all. Farage is content for the foreignisation of England to advance by “legal” immigration, and the Establishment is content for pointless debates about “illegal” immigration. It is the rejection of foreignisation which is forbidden in the public square.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

Could you spell out what action you would support to prevent ‘foreignisation’, as you put it?

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

My proposition would be that we English must secure the existence of our people and an English future for our children. The English should be asked what they want, and if they agree then a reversing process of mass repatriation and/or relocation, as the only peaceful means of achieving that, should be instituted.
The alternative is to blunder into wat David Coleman has already set out (May 2016 edition Standpoint Magazine) of minoritisation by the mid-2060s.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Worker
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

Thanks for clarifying. How do you define English? Cards on the table here – I was born in Scotland but live in England so I guess I’d have to relocate but my two children and wife (who are all English born) could stay?

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Subject to gene flow from neighbouring territories the English are that people wholly related to those non-migrants and non-Jews present in England on 22nd June 1948 before the HMT Empire Windrush sailed into British territorial waters.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

What’s your problem with Jewish people – or rather, why don’t you think they can be authentically English?

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Woke may not be a perfect definition but it is the best we have at the moment. For a number of years people struggled with terms such as political correctness, left wing, Neo Marxist and others which didn’t quite encompass fully and enabled the Woke to deflect the conversation to argue about the term rather than the real issues. People using the term know what it means and it is becoming increasingly understood beyond platforms such as this. You only have to watch TV, listen to radio and read mainstream press to understand the difficulty expressing politically incorrect views. How many programs, adverts, shows depict or discuss problems that arise from immigration or multiculturalism versus those that depict or exalt it as harmonious. How many demonstrate disparities between the sexes versus similarity and equality. When the occasional non conforming voice gets through it is usually apologetic and qualified and is still met with a barrage of ridicule and condemnation. Even on platforms such as this I suspect most are are cautious and self censor to a degree for fear of their comment being struck off or being thought of as a rabid ist or phobe. I suspect you hear plenty and various opinions only because you make a point of visiting the few platforms where there is a degree of freedom to express them.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Micheal Lucken

To simplify (taking racism as an example) I think you’re saying there are lots of people out there who are saying ‘I can’t say what I think because I’ll be accused of racism’. To which the obvious response is ‘Well, what is it you want to say?’ Without that honest discussion it’s impossible to debate.
The level of debate at the moment starts and stops with ‘I can’t say what I think because the woke mob will lynch me.’

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I’m genuinely not sure whether the problem is supposed to be “you can’t talk about race” in the media or “you can’t say racist things” in the media?
Both discussion of race and racist discussion appear in print, and both are heard on the radio and TV, so neither claim seems particularly true. In fact, unHerd seems to be based on the premise that you can discuss these issues.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

The discussion of race is controlled. Have you tried to talk in any depth about the sociobiology of Sub-Saharan Africans on any mainstream publication?
And there is NO racism in the English, say, rejecting the foreignisation of their home. Is there.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

If you’re saying it’s not racist to reject curry, or jazz, or italian opera – you may be correct. Foolish and smallminded, but not necessarily racist to object to foreign influences on our culture. You’re welcome to your heavily boiled veg and Elizabethan madrigals if that’s your thing.
If you’re saying that children of English people who are born abroad or to a non-English spouse don’t count as English and should be repatriated on the grounds they are only partly related, that’s crazy.
If you’re saying that Jews can’t count as English, that’s deeply anti-semtic (and racist and sectarian and whatever else).
Your definition (above) was

the English are that people wholly related to those non-migrants and non-Jews present in England on 22nd June 1948 before the HMT Empire Windrush sailed into British territorial waters.

(and didn’t the Windrush sail FROM British Imperial waters in Jamaica?)
Still not sure what your view is of migrants from Wales, Scotland or Ireland – north or south.

As for the sociobiology of Sub-Saharan Africans, do you believe that there are significant genetically determined (as opposed to cultural) behavioural differences between different people groups?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

if people cannot agree on what woke is,
People can agree. The author is building a straw man; the term is not hard to understand, it has just been made into a caricature by those who fit the description.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Could you give us a definition then, please, Alex?

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Wokeness means certainty of positions on about anything, no arguments from dissenters who are always racist or some other -ist. It’s a religion that asserts any previous thinking, by definition, is incorrect. It’s a form of nihilism that anyone could ever be correct. Thus maths become racist.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

“Wokeness means certainty of positions on about anything”

Are you sure?

Vikram Sharma
Vikram Sharma
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I agree. Strawman indeed.
Below a cogent account of what woke is and what it signifies
https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/andrew-sullivan-americas-new-religions.html

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Vikram Sharma

Thanks, for sharing the article. So what I take from it is that woke means believing in an ideology of social justice and in social justice theory. This means a belief that historical societal structures are inherently biased in favour of some groups and biased against others and human beings should try to adopt practices to reduce or reverse this bias.
Is that what you understood it meant?

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

No, I understood it to describe humourless evangelical zealots who have inconsistent and simplistic truths and who demand public humiliation of non-believers and heretics.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

Aren’t those things you’ve listed interpretation of character traits and behaviours rather than ideology?

John Warren
John Warren
3 years ago

“Populism, both on the Left and Right, has failed to offer a convincing solution to years of economic inequality and political gridlock.
I don’t think so. In 2016 52% of voters backed the populists and voted to leave the EU even though the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the President of the USA, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the vast majority of MP’s, and almost every parrot in every petshop were for remain. Who was for leave? Nigel, Boris and bloke who owns Wetherspoons.
And to prove it wasn’t a fluke the 2019 General Election was another triumph for the populist approach.
I think in 10 years we will look back and regard it as an inspired decision.
Populism is simply giving the voters what they want, and there should be more of it.

Last edited 3 years ago by John Warren
David George
David George
3 years ago
Reply to  John Warren

“almost every parrot in every petshop”
I like that. Cute and true. 

John Warren
John Warren
3 years ago
Reply to  David George

Not mine, I confess. Paul Keating, Aussie PM in the early 90s, had a good turn of phrase.

Edward Jones
Edward Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  John Warren

‘Populism’ is an abstract concept that I have difficulty in understanding.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
3 years ago
Reply to  Edward Jones

Populism: “Successful and popular decisions that are disliked by left-wing academics and media commentators” Distinct from popular, which is what political decisions are called when they are favoured by cultural and economic elites.
Hope that helps.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Edward Jones

Have you thought of becoming a politician or BBC journalist?

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

“This linguistic emptiness means that politics is, as the philosopher Simone Weil wrote, increasingly “peopled exclusively by myths and monsters”.”
It’s actually peopled by elites who don’t want to ever give up power. Which is why someone like Trump has a certain appeal, he articulates that the average Joe is getting the short end of the stick. That is most certainly not a myth. It’s also why someone like Trump has to be destroyed, he gets too close to the mark.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago

Trump is a member of the elite who most certainly does not want to ever give up power. Why on earth his supporters believe that he has their best interests at heart is a total mystery to me.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

If he were a member of the elite, then elites would have liked him.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Eleanor Barlow

The political, financial media, military. intelligence and pharma/healthcare elites all conspired to defeat Trump last year. This fact was laid out in some detail in the Time article a few weeks ago. By articulating the views and aspirations of countless normal, working people, Trump represented a threat to the elites. He had to go.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It seems he didn’t articulate the views and aspirations of enough normal working people to win the election, though.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

See the Time article I referred to. As well all know, the voting regulations were changed – illegally in some cases – in a number of states in order to ensure that Trump lost.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

We likely won’t ever actually know that to be true.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago

What do the English … the native people of the land which bears their name … really want for the future of their homeland and English children?
Do they really see themselves and their kin as atomised economic actors interested only in jobs and consumer goods?
Do they see themselves as anti-racists and anti-fascists striving to submerge themselves and their kin in the bottomless seas of the Third World for the attainment of something called equality?
Or do they see themselves as a people held in contempt by their own elites, who so oppress them that no party or person can even speak in the public square of their truth and good, and even their future survival and continuity is closed off from them?
If it is the latter (and it is) how do you propose to speak for the cause of the English if you only understand them as interchangeable economic units or radically equal socialist cyphers? How do you propose to say anything of importance if you will not acknowledge their peoplehood and natural right to life and home?

Last edited 3 years ago by G Worker
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

‘acknowledge their peoplehood and natural right to life and home?’
In what ways do you think the above is being denied to the English at the moment?

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

The natural right and shared interests of the English people are not admitted to public discussion, and have no been so since Enoch Powell was supressed in 1968.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

I suspect it’s possible someone could oppose racism without “striving to submerge themselves and their kin in the bottomless seas of the Third World“.
But it’s hard to tell what (if anything) GW means by that phrase, so I could be wrong.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

There is no racism in any native people resisting its own colonisation and replacement by foreign peoples. The life-cause of the native people is the highest moral value on the land, and the defence of that cause is always morally unimpeachable. Those who call it “racism” are haters of the people.
You are one such, aren’t you?

Last edited 3 years ago by G Worker
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

Are you saying that if someone comes to the UK (or even England) from outside he or she somehow “replaces” a native?

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

“The life-cause of the native people is the highest moral value on the land, and the defence of that cause is always morally unimpeachable.” 

That could justify all manner of evil. In fact, isn’t that the argument of the racist thug who murdered Jo Cox?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

If we cannot even agree the meaning of a word, substantive argument becomes impossible.
Does this include words like fascist or white supremacist, terms the left in the US freely tosses about to essentially mean “people not like us.” And substantive argument is already largely impossible.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I agree with you about the use of Fascist. Fascist is a term used far too often and it has lost any real meaning because of that. It’s often used in these comments pages by people referring to the ‘woke brigade’. White supremacist as a term I don’t come across often in the UK.
Calling people names is not, generally, the best way to structure substantive arguments about anything.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Sure Mark, but consider that the insult usage of words like facist, racist, anti-vaxxer, etc. is probably related to frustration with the impossibility of objective discusion.
Let me give you an example: in a different article I responded to someone’s comment that “the true levels of racism in the US are exaggerated by the media”. I asked if this person believed that the various murders that were filmed and watched by the whole world (e g. George Floyd, etc.) had been staged. The person responded by stating that the numbers were manipulated by the “woke” media. He never answered the question, chosing to disqualify the fact I pointed as evidence.
So the issue is not that you cannot argue racism because of confusing/vague language. The problem is that people no longer see an issue in ignoring facts and fabricating their own.
Mind you, I also loathe the obvious hysteria of some groups these days, but I refrain from bundling them into the silly “woke” sobriquet together with more reasonable people just because I disagree with them.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

Two questions, then:

  1. Do you believe that the multiple times predominance of black-on-white murders in the USA over white-on-black murders proves white racism or black racism, or the relative violence of blacks?
  2. Do you believe that the vast media coverage of white-on-black murders compared to the deafening silence when it comes to black-on-white murders proves the anti-white racism of the American media?
Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Worker

I don’t think the murder stats on race you refer to prove or disprove any kind of racism or prove anything about the relative violence of different races.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

53% of the murders in the US are committed by a group of 14 to 30 year olds who make up about 3% of the population.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I remember a tongue in cheek definition from the eighties: a fascist is someone with a bigger car than you; “Right Wing” was used by some on the left as an indiscriminate synonym for evil – not unlike how “woke” is sometimes used today, from the right.
And Mark B’s spot on about this sort of thing being unhelpful in debate.
On the other hand, fascism does have a specific meaning, and we can’t rule out all parallels with totalitarian populism now and in the thirties. And white supremacy does seem to have been a thing in the US in recent history – and arguably its influence is not yet dead. But in general it’s better to discuss issues than to call people names.
But if anyone thinks name-calling is more constructive, go ahead and downvote me.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
3 years ago

I enjoyed this. I read Orwell’s Politics & The English Language essay every year, and do my best to have it read by everyone who works for me every year too. If I could be emperor for an hour, I’d force everyone who works in every corporation to read it before allowing them to send a single email. The offences against language committed by MegaCorps are not only physically painful, but a potent signifier of a deep malaise. If you can’t be direct in what you mean, what are you trying (not) to say? Hence 2+2=5 and diversity=crushing, intolerant conformity.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Marc Stears seems to talk a lot of sense, so one wonders what on earth he was doing as Ed Miliband’s speech writer. As for this:
‘In his book, Stears recalls a conversation with a Labour pollster who, in the 2015 election campaign, told him that people valued spending time with loved ones more than any other issue.’
Trevor Phillips says something very similar about the basic needs and wishes of most people in the latest Triggernometry podcast.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
3 years ago

We now life in the age where competence is no longer a matter of life and death for the majority of middle and upper class westerners. People can spout codswallop because it will not kill them. Commercial fishing, forestry and mining and have higher death rates than the Police and Armed Forces- US Government Stats.
People need to be able to look one in the eyes and ask the question ” Do I tust this person with my life ?” Which is why so many people who undertake practical and dangerous work no longer trust those who do not.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I barely trust politicians to manage the seating arrangement for a two person dinner, which underscores a big problem we have inflicted on ourselves: expecting far too much of people and institutions than they are capable of delivering. Every issue does NOT require a govt solution.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I barely trust politicians to manage the seating arrangement for a two person dinner

Part of the problem with those seating arrangements is that one of the seats is often occupied by a wealthy lobbyist, trying to influence the politician or persuade them to vote or act against the interests of their constituents.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

In public life, two sorts of man exist,
The man who claims to know the way that others are,
And those who claim to know how man should be.
The rest of us must choose who does least harm.

In public life, two sorts of man enlist
The expertise of those whose star
Is brilliant in ascendancy.
Who with authority and intellectual calm,
Proclaim they know, as great psychologists,
How to bring their fellows home when they stray far
Into such territories as politicians see
Allow them too much agency, where oily charm
And brainwashing have no effect.

Else they recruit great scientists,
Who claim to deal in fact and fact alone,
Such statisticians, mathematicians, physicists,
Who theorise and claim they can detect
Such patterns in the ways their fellow men will act,
That they are easily predictable, each one a drone,
Or worker bee.

And the politician, always hoping to manipulate,
Seeks out such academics who care naught
For how complexity reduced to the absurd
Might be applied by those with power to legislate,
See not how with great danger fraught
Their theories, no longer just in written word,
But tested out on others’ lives will not substantiate
As they predict, for politicians always must select
And cherry pick.

And on the other hand there is the expert,
Who wants to mould man, and being strong,
Uninterested in ‘scientific truth’, cares
Only for the one idea, ‘ought’.
And encourages the politician to exert
Such force as is required, to subdue the man who dares
To question ideology, or flick
Two fingers at authority, and hurt,
Destroy, abuse, put down, eliminate,
Those pesky beings who must prove his theory wrong.

http://www.readmypoems.co.uk/2021/03/those-who-claim-to-know.html

Matthew Bottomley
Matthew Bottomley
3 years ago

I certainly agree that things would be better if we took more time understanding the position of others and engaging. Too often it seems we all have a habit of assuming we know exactly what the other is talking about simply because we use the same words/have the same language when the reality is that our different experiences mean we often have different interpretations of what these words actually represent.
There’s also a big divide between theory and application – it seems to me that theory often needs abstract words and generalised conversations whereas application needs words grounded in reality. We seem to be in a mess today because society has changed around many of us without us really realising what was happening- eg guiding principles like freedom of speech which were once held universally as sacred in democracies are now being undermined rather than protected.

G Worker
G Worker
3 years ago

The reality is that society has not changed of itself, with the consent and willing participation of the native people, but been changed in key ways by a united political class without asking for consent. Then that same political class has demonised the inevitable resulting dissent while its media and corporate clients and fellow-travellers have excluded it from public discourse.

Alex Hunter
Alex Hunter
3 years ago

An interesting and thoughtful piece.
That said, I think the point about ‘woke’ feels a bit forced. Yes, woke is hard to define in some respects but, regardless of whether people know about it or not, I do think many of us have an aversion to ‘silliness’. If politicians would start talking down some of the silliness that is around right now I think they’d be onto something!
People don’t need to understand what a ‘culture war’ is in order to recognise that something rather odd is going on and feel discomforted by it. For example, I am spending a disproportionate amount of time on LinkedIn after being made redundant. There’s a growing trend for people to put their pronouns on their profiles – why?!
Using Miliband’s speechwriter is an interesting example. As a follower of politics I literally cannot think of a single thing the man has ever said!

Otto Christensen
Otto Christensen
3 years ago

Freedom of Speech does not mean that one can say whatever comes to mind without criticism, debate or scrutiny. Surely that is understood??

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago

Correct. But it does mean that one can say whatever comes to mind without breaking the Law.

google
google
3 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

or losing one’s job.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

Because it is in the interests of the powers-that-be to keep everybody divided and thus collectively dis-empowered maybe the entire woke and anti-woke pabulum was/is a clever ploy conspiracy invented by the powers-that-be for distracting everyone’s attention from what is really happening all over the planet thus preventing any serious collective address to the very real terrible issues and things that are “in the works” everywhere. Issues which if not dealt with very soon could possibly cancel all of Earthkind (leaving only cockroaches!)
The pandemic of negative global competitiveness. Dissociative warrior-nationalisms. The “sport” of strategic war-making. The everywhere aggressive search for global dominance by corporations and the traditional “great religions”. And all the overwhelming changes now progressing in the natural domain including human caused global warming and climate change, the global epidemics of disease and poverty, the global depletion of naural resources, the global pervasiveness of toxic wastes etc etc.
At another level we now all “live” in or are trapped in a scenario which combines the nightmare scenarios of both Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984. Check out the essay by Chris Hedges titled Brave New Distopia available via the Scheerpost website.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Sorry to be critical of a writer but the intro header had ‘When politicians talk in abstractions, politics itself begins to lose coherence’
I think this all was a bit of talking in abstractions, I read the great writers quotes as meaning something different from how they were used here. Simone was a Jewish, Hard Left, with an absolute faith in Catholicism, woman drifting around Europe during WWII – her bit of myths and monsters was very much of that political climate, which was politically myths and monsters. I do not see her in with Ed Milliband’s speech writer. Ed is more of a ‘jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today kind of a limp promiser but non-deliverer. No myths and monsters in his speeches.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Ed Miliband was not given the opportunity to deliver jam either today or tomorrow. We should probably be very grateful for this.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

I’m not sure about the other people, but George Orwell certainly had a place in his lexicon for abstract words. “English socialism” is of course, not a concrete term, but Orwell observed that it had a lot of concrete, romantic associations with it that disappeared when it was replaced by its Newspeak short form, “Ingsoc”.
I just finished reading the third volume of Charles Moore’s authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher, which has garnered such extravagant praise. On p. 774 he makes a seemingly innocent reference to “Slobodan MiloĆĄević, a Communist who had been elected president of Serbia, the largest of Serbia’s constituent nations in both territory and population) in 1989.” Except MiloĆĄević wasn’t elected president of the Serbian nation, he was elected president of the Serbian republic. Yugoslavia, as the old saying went, had seven neighbours, six republics and five nations. While “nation” is a pretty abstract term, the five nations in the saying were Croats, Macedonians, Serbs and Slovenes, and one or the other of Muslims (Bosniaks) and Montenegrins. Let’s go with the first option. It means that a lot of the anti-Serb rant that follows it doesn’t make much sense. There was no neat identity between republics and nations in Yugoslavia, so if MiloĆĄević sought a Greater Serbia, he could hardly be blamed for wanting to make his republic’s boundaries more closely reflect the nation’s boundaries. At one time he and Tudjman schemed on a carve-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so Tudjman, not once mentioned in the bio, also wanted a Greater Croatia, but there is no mention of this. As it turned out, the republican boundary for Croatia became much closer to a national boundary by the ethnic cleansing of most of the Serb population in the Krajina, unmentioned in Moore’s book, unless his quoting Charles Powell in a footnote on atrocities committed by the Catholic Croats can be seen as taking this in. And MiloĆĄević was the most unsuccessful of all Greater This or That warriors, not only failing to gain a single hectare of territory for Serbia, but losing the Serbian province of Kosovo, where a vicious ethnic cleansing of its Serb population was carried out under NATO surveillance. Also, the breakup of the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro, which was promoted by the NATO nations, looks aberrant, if one thinks of Serbs and Montenegrins as one nation, that had been two republics. So what looks like a careless, if somewhat ignorant, use of the wrong word by Moore, appears, on closer examination, more likely a deliberate word choice, geared to promote a false narrative on the breakup of Yugoslavia, one intensely prejudicial to Serbs.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
3 years ago

Lots of comments today boil down to a self contradictory paradox by generalising about people they’ve abstracted into a lump- the Right or the Left, who are to blame because they use generalised abstractions. Hilarious.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

“The persistence of statistically significant effects suggests that there may be a personality type that—independent of one’s actual experience of real victimhood or internalization of real virtue—drives individuals to signal virtuous victimhood as a means to extract resources from others.

Habitual, false victim signalers deplete available resources for genuine victims, dupe trusting others into misallocating their resources, and can initiate a dysfunctional cycle of competitive victimhood within society more broadly.

In modern, affluent societies, by contrast, people can signal their difficult-to-verify suffering to thousands or more strangers online. Although genuine victims may benefit in such environments (because they can spread awareness of their plight, and solicit support, on a large scale), manipulative individuals inevitably will use the same mass-broadcast tools to extract resources and possibly even initiate a cycle of competitive victimhood that infects everyone. Those who most vociferously declare their victimhood to others may often be villains instead”.

https://quillette.com/2021/02/27/the-evolutionary-advantages-of-playing-victim/

Within the context of this study, abstractions are often forms of online manipulation in order to extract the resources of “decent work, relationships, health, and a good place to live”.

Thus, abstractions such as the War on Woke are a necessary online antidote to the abstractions of victimhood and virtue signalling.

Last edited 3 years ago by Steve Gwynne
Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

The article brings to mind a comparison with medicine. People complain that we no longer can rely on a friendly family doctor that do house calls and knows everything there is to know about our ailments.
Just like medicine, politics evolved to a level of complexity where no one person can hope to “know all that needs to be known” in order to do their job well.
Just like medicine, politics are clearly more technical and less personal now, as a direct consequence of complexity.
Just like with medicine, those that insist in chosing based on personal/emotional perceptions do so at their own peril, and inevitably risk making a potentially deadly bad, misguided choice.
People that insist in a human/emotional connection in fields like medicine and politics should perhaps consider the various other avenues for human/emotional exchange that were always available and should benefit from a more human/emotional approach: family & friends.
In short, it is about time that people learn that mixing emotions into something as clearly technical as politics is a terrible choice – and is actually driving the kind of politicians that populate the landscape today. Time to get a grip with reality, perhaps?