Sunday, 26 September 2010

The problem of language and distortion

Last Tuesday, at Conference, I met three UKIP members - complete with purple and yellow rosettes - outside the arena. I find that's one of the best things about conference: the activists from other parties who enjoy fruitlessly peddling their ideologies to those of a completely different inclination. And as I like political discussion, not to mention that I have a love for engaging with people with different ideas, I wasn't going to deprive these people of a little friendly conversation.

It's always good fun to engage with members of other parties. And I mean that in the best possible way. I enjoy the SWP and the socialist party particularly; their hearts are often in the right place in relation to social justice but their remedies are painfully short-sighted. And the vitriol that left wingers have for their own ilk in other irrelevant revolutionary parties is the stuff of comedy. I imagined three members of UKIP would be pretty soft by comparison.

I was soon proved wrong. Discussing the Tuesday morning vote on equality of marriage, a split soon developed among them. Two were blatantly homophobic, choosing to hide behind their "faith" in defence of their attitude while the other was more libertarian. The conversation inevitably turned onto Europe, and again division became apparent as the same two poured scorn on the three main parties while the third at least attempted to see reason in the position of the Liberal Democrats on the EU. These two middle-aged, anti-gay Little Englanders then proceeded to pour out their obvious hatred of all things European, turning on what they called a "Zionist" conspiracy.

I responded by stating that I was unaware that people still thought like that. It was the trigger for further anti-semitism and the immortal quote "well, it's easy for young people like yourself to move on". Whatever that means. By this point, the more reasonable of the trio had moved on. Probably to start up his own splinter party.

Why is this important? On one level it isn't, other than to show that UKIP members in Liverpool are hardly the champions of libertarianism they claim. However, it's the use of the word "Zionist" as a pejorative, derogatory term I wish to draw attention to. That kind of politics belongs to a different era, as I pointed out. But it also underlines the need for political activists of all persuasions to be more careful and sensitive in their use of language. It is so easy to overstate, exaggerate, use prejudicial terminology and unwittingly sow the seeds of distortion in the process.

Interestingly, on the same evening I attended a fringe event organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Sir Alan Beith, Shami Chakrabarti and Ed Fordham were debating how to tackle the problems of Nazi analogies, arguing that "when everything is about Auschwitz, you deny the Holocaust". They each expertly and eloquently argued that is is both easy and irresponsible to reach for the language of extremism and tribalism. They championed more careful and socially responsible political appraoches towards the problems of racial and religious tension. Sir Alan Beith particularly was forthright in contending that using the language of the holocaust to make either comparisons or political points is to do a disservice to survivors and in turn diminishes the historical reailties.

I do not disagree. However, the one thing I would take issue with is the notion that we should necessarily refrain from using Nazi analogies. I accept that they should not be used carelessly and irresponsibly, and that it is both insensitive (and historically inaccurate) to make unnecessary reference to the Holocaust. But there is the world of difference between the Holocaust - a historical event which witnessed the systematic extermination of a race of people - and Nazism, which is a political creed, ideology and worldview that is regrettably still very much alive. I would go so far as to suggest that "when everything is about the Holocaust, you deny Nazism". I certainly wouldn't have any real problem in identifying some of Nick Griffin's policies as Nazi, and won't apologise for it.

We have to be careful to avoid the rhetoric which distorts or divides. It happens more often than we think: we've all made value judgements on basis of words such as "left", "right", "socialist", "Fascist", "extremist", etc. but how useful are such labels in honest political debate, especially when we reduce them to terms of abuse lacking any real meaning?

In the next few weeks, I suspect the media will resort to using outdated terminology to describe Ed Miliband's relationship with his own party and the unions. While inevitably there will be some truth in the thrust of the argument, as Liberal Democrats we need to be wary of using language that will overstate, mislead and have the potential to damage future relationships between ourselves and Labour. We must utilise the language of reason, purpose and considered, principled criticism rather than cliched insults and party tribalism.


Anonymous said...

"I suspect the media will resort to using outdated terminology to describe Ed Miliband's relationship with his own party and the unions. Liberal Democrats need to be wary of using language that will overstate, mislead and have the potential to damage future relationships between ourselves and Labour." Maybe you should try telling that to some of the idiots on Lib Dem Voice.

Andrew said...

I won't comment on Lib Dem Voice, other than to say I read it and have a lot of respect for many of the contributors. However, like all such sites, inevitably you will have people on there saying all kinds of things! If someone's written something you've been particularly offended by, I suggest that you take it up with the editors of LDV who I'm sure would be understanding.

Anonymous said...

very interesting take on things Andrew.
I think where the holocaust and the work of the nazis is concerned its so easy to use insensitive language sometimes.
I agree that politicians shouldn't use this kind of language, it's inflammatory