Words can and do have a direct effect on the world, Dr Philip Seargeant writes.

First published in September 2019.

The word ‘humbug’ started out in life as a description for someone who behaves in a misleading or deceitful fashion. A politician with limited moral scruples, for example. Sometime further down the line, it became a means for calling out what you thought was hypocritical nonsense. A close synonym for ‘poppycock’. Or for today’s slightly more popular ‘bullshit’.

It was in this latter sense that Boris Johnson used it in the House of Commons last week when dismissing accusations from the Labour MP Paula Sherriff that his choice of words was becoming increasingly unsafe. That his rhetoric was encouraging the abusive behaviour of others and was in serious danger, or so Sherriff worried, of inciting actual physical violence to fellow MPs.

There’s been a dramatic intensification in the strength of rhetoric in UK politics recently. There’s also been an equally strong upswing in complaints about this sort of language, along with concerns that it’s having a troubling impact on the wellbeing of society. Is it really the case, though, that when the prime minister and his supports label their opponents ‘traitors’ and says their opinions are ‘betrayals’, or when Nigel Farage talks of ‘taking a knife’ to civil servants, this creates a direct threat to those in public life? Or to put it another way, can words really be akin to weapons when flung around as part of heated political debate? Or should we all be a bit less quick to censure people simply for using the occasional forceful metaphor, and concentrate less on the style and more on the substance of what’s being argued?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. The relationship between language and the world is an intricate and complex one. But there are a few important principles which can help give a clearer picture of the real threat of inflammatory rhetoric, and of when and how people are exploiting arguments about arguing for their own rhetorical purposes.

The background context to any discussion of this sort is that words can be, and often are, actions in their own right. The old ‘sticks and stones’ adage is simply not true. There very often is a direct causal relationship between what someone says about the world and what then happens in the world. For example, when Lady Hale says that the proroguing of Parliament is unlawful, Parliament gets recalled. Boris Johnson and colleagues may moan about the Supreme Court’s decision, but they still go along with it. Words such as these, spoken by certain people in society, have a direct effect on the world in the same way that any physical action does.

Of course, this formula of speech-as-action depends very much on who is speaking those words. If I were to have asserted that the proroguing was unlawful, it wouldn’t have had quite the same effect. Coming from me, any such words would have remained unsolicited opinion. Coming from Lady Hale, on the other hand, they became fact. We have complicated and dynamic mechanisms in society for agreeing who has the power for their words to be regarded in this way. But it’s no overstatement to say that the whole of human society is built on this power of transforming words into actions.

So yes, words can be extremely forceful. Yet the power they have depends very much on the context in which they’re used and on the authority of the person speaking them. In some cases, for example, the prime minister’s words will have a direct relationship with action; in others, they won’t, but can still be highly influential in shaping the tide of culture.

Another important factor in this relationship between language and real-world effects is the way that so much of the knowledge we have about what’s going on in the world is mediated. As individuals, we only directly experience a tiny fraction of what happens in society. The rest is filtered through the medium of television, the press and social media. And when the media report on an event, they inevitably create a particular perspective on it through their choice of words. Again, this can have very direct results on actions in the world. We wouldn’t get infamous boasts like It’s The Sun Wot Won It if media organisations didn’t think their words had a direct effect on society.

So when Boris Johnson decides to refer to the Benn Bill as ‘the surrender bill’ he is very specifically framing the whole of the Brexit process as a war because he believes this is a good rhetorical strategy. It’s not simply the fact that ‘military metaphors are old, standard, Parliamentary terms’, as he later claimed in an interview. It’s because he thinks that this type of language will help him achieve what he wants to achieve.

The problem, however, is that while this use of framing may well help bring about one desired effect – i.e. drumming up support for his position – it can also have others – e.g. stoking a general sense of partisanship and extremism in society. And Johnson seems happy to commit to the first while ignoring the very real possibility of the second.

It’s often difficult to rule precisely on the causal relationship between words and the influence they have on people’s actions. But the bottom line is that words can and do have a direct effect on the world – after all, this is precisely why people use forceful rhetorical language in the first place. For the ethically-minded politician, the challenge is striking a balance between language which achieves short-term gain and that which slowly chips away at the values we hold dear as a culture.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 30 September 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Gif of Boris Johnson in Parliament.)



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Senior Lecturer, Open University. Teaching language & communication studies, focusing on linguistic creativity, English around the world, and the relationship between language, politics & society.

London, UK. Articles in PMP Magazine Website