Language, Truth and Lies

In a recent address to the 141st American Public Health association meeting, Professor Sir Michael Marmot made a principled stand against Coalition policy. He is reported to have said that…

The government in Britain that we have now, the Conservative led coalition government, uses the word ‘fairness’ as if it has no meaning at all. They cut the top rate of tax—and they call it fair. They cut benefits to the poor—and they call it fair. They cut services to the disadvantaged—and they call it fair. I call it a grotesque parody of fairness”

His approach is telling.

Marmot does not simply disagree with the political choices that have been made, he sees these as compounded by dishonesty and doublespeak, which will have a more lasting impact on our society than any financial cut could have.

When words like “fairness” are appropriated, when a political platform is used to hammer home a wholesale redefinition of terms and covertly reshape the conceptual context in which a a public debate is taking place, that debate is not open or productive. Without an open, productive debate, how can we aspire to democratic government? How can politicians exercise the will of the people if it is not clear what that will is – or if they are free to redefine whatever they want to do as being the will of the people without challenge?

That politicians all over the world are using language and the convenient redefinition of terms in a public debate for their own advantage is obvious. Carl Scott blogged about Barack Obama’s misuse of language in the Obamacare debate yesterday in “First Things”, writing…

Group-lie goes beyond the dynamics of group-think. It builds upon those dynamics, you know, those of an in-group convinced of its righteousness and superior perspective, deliberately excluding skeptical voices, and adds the old tyrant’s strategy of getting as many collectively implicated in a foul deed as possible.”

Nevertheless, just because group-lies are common, it does not mean that we should ignore or tolerate them. As philosophers, one of our most important roles is to clarify the meaning of and relationships between words and associated concepts. It is hardly surprising that politicians have sought to marginalize Philosophy (and the Religious Education lessons in which most Philosophy is done in schools) and yet it is deeply worrying and sad that things have got as far as they have without more people having the sort of courage that Professor Sir Michael Marmot has and speaking out about what is happening.

Surely there are enough of us who benefited from a broad and liberal education while it was still available to recognize that language is the key to understanding our world and when politicians mess with it they do so at their peril. When Tutsis are redefined as cockroaches, when humanity is redefined as meaning “men” or when homosexuals are redefined as criminals abuses follow very quickly. If nobody speaks out against the misuse of language or at least seeks to make language part of the discussion rather than just the means of having it, we become vulnerable to gross manipulation and coercion.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot referred to the misuse of the word fairness – I would draw your attention to the misuse of words such as “quality” and “standards” in the education debate. Just as the government is capable of calling a cut in top-rate taxes fair, it is capable of calling a cut in educational choices at 14+ and 16+ an improvement in quality and a cut in funding for A Levels, which will lead to larger class-sizes, fewer resources and less formative assessment, a raising of standards.

Michael Gove is such an agent of doublespeak that he calls turning the clock back to 1944, an age in which many teachers were unqualified, in which children followed a packed but largely irrelevant curriculum, in which terminal exams “wrote off” whole segments of the population and in which nobody was taught to think, question or argue, progress!

I don’t have the platform of a Michael Marmot; my denunciation of doublespeak will not carry as far – but that does not make my duty to speak out less pressing. Please join me in standing up for language, the basis for any discussion and for democracy itself, before it is too late.

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