…. but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language….
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
George Orwell, 1946, “Politics and the English Language”
Many people have misconceptions about the power of language, but none get cited more about its power to manipulate, persuade and compel than George Orwell, who was not only the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm”, but also a propagandist working for the BBC broadcasting to the Indian sub-continent during the Second World War.
Despite his knowledge of the ability of language to manipulate and control perception, Orwell sometimes seemed to propose that language could act as a “window pane” onto society. Yet, the current high-intensity application of “perception management” in democratic government is beginning to have a prejudicial effect, on both those tempted to use it and those upon whom it is used.
The environmental whistleblower, Andrew Frank, has written an “eye-opening” letter which Canadians of all political stripes, including those supported by “foreign radical billionaire socialists”, should read.
What is particularly worrisome is the tone of the language invoked by agents of the political party that runs the federal government. It is exactly the kind of “phraseology” beloved of authoritarian apparatchiks everywhere.
(1) “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something”;
(2) “a hostile nation or its armed forces, especially in time of war”;
(3) “a thing that harms or weakens something else”.
Clearly, while we can see that definition (2) is not pertinent here, definitions (1) and (3) are sufficiently vague as to be able to cast as a wide net as one wants across the political spectrum or possible civil society activities or actions: e.g. “actively opposed” to arguments, policies, ideas? What would constitute “harm”? Losing credibility in all candidate meetings, talk radio programmes or via letters-to-the-editor pages?
Since environmental and other civic society groups engaged in the democratic political process are meant to engage in opposing and proposing ideas, analyses and policies, anything they say or do could be identified as a possible “threat” that “harms or weakens something else” (e.g. oilsands, economy?).
Do we not want a democracy with an active citizenry where people are “actively opposed” to different policies, political initiatives and movements? We already have this, but is the use of the language of the Harper government shrinking the boundaries of debate to the point at which perhaps “opposing” political parties (NDP, Liberals, Greens) will be considered “enemies of the people of Canada”?
What we need is open debate, argument and opposition (surely that is what the House of Commons consecrates through the role usually ascribed to the second largest political party), not the “demonization” of civil society groups, labour unions and other citizen organizations? Where will that process of de-legitimizing of an active citizenry end?
Language plays an important role in getting people accustomized to others being “de-humanised” or diminished or “de-valued” in some way, which is a necessary pre-condition to their “elimination” or treatment as “collateral damage”, or as an “obstacle”.
While it is perhaps far-fetched to think that the PMO and its coterie of advisors and staff might go so far to think of environmental groups and aboriginal and First Nations people as “enemies” in the more extreme versions of de-humanisation, it is not far-fetched at all that the language used by the Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, is meant to be invoked in the same way that the old Stalinist regimes of the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe used to invoke terms such as “enemy of the people”, “enemy of the state”, a “class enemy” or even a “class traitor”.
But, what happens when the government of the day uses language to de-legitimize the democratic role of civil society groups, including trade unions and environmental movements? Will “the people have to be protected from themselves”? (This too was a phrase, if memory serves me correctly, used by some of the authoritarian regimes that have been “consigned to the dustbin of history”.)
[NOTE: I initially wrote this post on 30 January 2012 and forgot to go back and finish it. In light of the recent RCMP report on identifying ‘radical environmentalists’ as a ‘security threat’, it is important to recognize how the government and its agencies are heightening the rhetoric with which to ‘criminalize dissent’, which effectively constrains and undermines a democratic society. This increasingly demonstrates that the objectives of the political party in power appear to be supported by a purportedly neutral body of the state, especially one that has the means and power to act as a repressive force. It is this overlap between state (bureaucracy) and government (elected, executive) that undermines representative democracy and erodes the separation of executive and bureaucratic functions that is characteristic of authoritarian systems of government found elsewhere, historically and at present: where party and state become one.]