Category Archives: Language

The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.

(http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-it-takes-all-day-be-poor)

Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.

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June 30 – What does a pension mean to you?

As a young child, I remember awaking in the wee hours of the morning and listening in the dark as my father prepared to go out to work as a deckhand on ferries moving crew, cargo and passengers between various islands in cold, sleet, rain, fog, wind, and sun, too!

My father, along with thousands of other seamen, got millions of passengers, employees and employers, families, relatives, tourists, and others, travelling between various islands and the mainland, safely to and from their destinations.

While I learned to hate the idea of what work might mean for me (I was too young to realise how it might change), I knew all too well what it meant for my father: early to rise, away for five days, a week or more at a time, and sometimes also away from home at Christmas and birthdays. His family grew up and experienced life as he spent (reluctant) time away from family – and at times appeared remote from our concerns.

Yet, once he got full-time – unionised – employment, my siblings and I (there were eight of us, including foster children) benefitted from the fact that my father’s earnings during the late 1960s and 1970s ensured that my mother could stay home with the children. (Talk about a ‘family-friendly’ policy – something you won’t hear these days from Tories or Republicans!!)

My father dreamed of retiring after a life-time spent at work, helping companies make profits, ensuring passengers arrived safely at their destinations and raising a family where the children were able to become relatively socially (and financially!!) mobile: moving up and out of the working class into the middle class. A result of both my father’s and my mother’s love of education, learning and books, as well as their belief that, while they made sacrifices for us in terms of their job prospects, respect and dignity on the job (and in life generally – since so many people’s sense of their own self-worth was dependent upon their occupations in life!) and ‘creature comforts’, they could reasonably expect that we would have a better life ahead of us.

And they, at least, would be able to view that from the comfort of a small, tidy pension which would enable them – unlike their own parents and grandparents – to be free from the compulsion to work until their death, as my father’s father – my own grandfather – had done (had to do!).

A small, but decent (and well-earned) pension that rewarded them for the diligence and loyalty for working hard at unsung jobs, that recognised the work that was still necessary for the movement of goods and people, and for the personal sacrifices that people, like my father, made to do a job in the present to enable a future for their/his children.

My father, left school at 13 years of age, but was self-taught. At a time when merchant seamen had only books (rather than satellite telly) to entertain them (after gambling and/or drinking away their money!!), my father became not just an auto-didact, but a parent who wanted to teach his children to experience a real life of education, knowledge and learning. An education that would take them away from being stuck with getting up at an ungodly hour to do a thankless task for decades.

Pensions are also a recognition that when you give up a part of your life to ensure that certain tasks are carried out, you lose the opportunity to engage in other activities and (possible alternative career paths) – and it is this loss of opportunity which is part of what pensions also represent.

It’s not just the potential that their own lives might have had that people lose, when they do these thankless tasks, but that their own lives may be shortened or become otherwise less fulfilling because of a lack of opportunity to realise their own potential.

That is, pensions are not just a means to which people have contributed as part of their financial planning for life after work, but that we have to recognise that people lose out other possibilities, other potentials that remain unrealised, because – for whatever reason – they chose, or were forced to choose, a life that excluded other opportunities.

My father always talked about how much he would have loved to have been a teacher, a second-hand bookseller, a writer and so many other things. The opportunity for my father never arrived. However, he had hopes that we would not have to live the lives that he had: moving in and out of unemployment; moving from job to job; being ripped off by employers; and so  on.

Knowing that a pension would allow one enough to live on in at least minimal comfort at the end of 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of working is an expectation that should be offerred to every man, woman and child, regardless of their position or which position they have ended up in!

Everyone should be able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, shouldn’t they?

When people think that governments and politicians should just be able to rip up people’s pensions, they never consider perhaps how those people made sacrifices that enabled the economy to function, goods and people to be transported, and so on.

And, that these working people made great sacrifices during their working lives. Why shouldn’t they be able to retire?

Why do we think that only CEOs should enjoy the fruits (profits) of your labour?

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From ‘Class war to Civil war’: The metaphor… (Part 2)

In Part 2, here, I take up the Conservatives’ dominant metaphor in their political thinking and why even non-union, non-worker Canadians should be worried.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is using its position as a majority government to threaten and pass back-to-work legislation for workers, even when they are locked out by the employer.

When a PM is so ready to use Parliament to pass laws that enable corporations to avoid engaging in meaningful negotiations, you have to ask whether the PM is acting on behalf of special interests of one tiny group of people and/or an ideology that drives him to do what he does?

For example, the Harper government has actually imposed a settlement that is worse than what the crown corporation, Canada Post, was at least publicly willing to offer. Harper, who has a very tight grip over the Conservative Party of Canada and over what MPs and staff can do or say, has made it clear that there is only one viewpoint that prevails. Harper has worked for organisations that promote an extreme, singular, ideological viewpoint, such as the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), which was set up by a rich insurance executive when the Canadian federal government set-up the single-payer, universal healthcare system, pioneered by the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the province of Saskatchewan.

So, it’s no surprise that he does not see workers, and especially unionised workers, as a legitimate group within society. Perhaps, like Margaret Thatcher he thinks that there are only individuals and families.

But, do these views necessarily mean that he is someone who is intent on pursuing a ‘class war’ on the poor and the working and middle classes?

First of all, it’s not a ‘class war’ in Harper’s eyes.

If Harper has learned well from his teacher, intellectual mentor and adviser, Tom Flanagan, then he probably sees politics as ‘civil war’.

So, we need to recognise that Harper and his closest advisers are those that have learned from and/or have taken advice from Republican spin-meisters and strategists (e.g. Frank Luntz). He knows that it is important to use ‘wedge’ issues to drive a stake between different groups of Canadians (and a stake through traditional Canadian values – too social-democratic!). He and his party are banking on the resentments of private sector workers who have lost out on pensions because previous Conservative and Liberal governments have permitted corporations to loot pension funds and undermine decent pay and salary settlements (e.g. back-to-work legislation means that there is no reason for corporations to even bother negotiating). Thus, the Conservatives are able to exploit the resentments of the working and middle classes and play on people’s own (and very real) fears of poverty (since a majority of Canadians are only one or two pay-cheques away from being unable to pay the mortgage or rent).

Harper has made it clear that he will only take one side in labour disputes and that he will use the State to support CEOs in their ‘bargaining’ over any employee groups. This ‘civil war’ is one which will greatly enhance the incredible power and influence that corporations already yield over the Conservative Party and various sectors of the economy.

Harper’s ‘back-to-work’ legislation can be seen as part of Conservative intent to use ‘wedge’ issues to drive clear and potentially volatile divisions between Canadians, but not necessarily overtly socio-economic (i.e. class) divisions (since it is likely that many millions more Canadians would end up on the opposing side, although he does have the advantage of corporate media chains!). He is attempting to repeat Republican success in the USA by adopting their tactics for his ‘war’ on Canadian traditions, values, beliefs and attitudes: to push Canada – or to remake it – in Conservative ideology. It is not just that he seeks to undermine or abuse democratic processes of Parliament (a Commons committee had found him in contempt of Parliament but an election was called and therefore it went no further; also see below for just a few of the tactics adopted by him and his party).

Sure, this notion of thinking of politics or political campaigning as ‘civil war’ is something which explains the viciousness of US politics, especially by the Republican Party.

However, you say, it is only a ‘metaphor’. Yet, if it is only a ‘metaphor’, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have consequences in the ‘real world’. Is it that Harper takes the metaphor too literally?

Do metaphors influence how people see things?

First, ‘metaphors’ are tropes or ‘figures of speech’ and therefore, as language, they do not cause actual ‘harm’ – physical – do they?

According to a number of researchers, they do have real consequences. They may or may not understand the metaphors as a ‘figure of speech’, but that doesn’t make them any less ‘real’. And, that doesn’t mean they don’t have real consequences in the ‘real’ world. For example, Metaphors We Live By, a book by George Lakoff (before his fame in the last decade) and Mark Johnson, published in 1980, pointed out that:

‘Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities.

A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor.

This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent.

In this sense, metaphors can be self-fulfilling.’

Now, look through Lakoff and Johnson’s sentences and think about the influence of the metaphor of ‘civil war’ in the thinking of Harper, Flanagan and the new Conservatives (not Tories in the traditional sense, but more ‘Reform-a-Tories’ with the emphasis on the former) and the rest of those that have been influenced by this kind of approach.

Harper’s approach to political campaigning is based upon the metaphor of ‘civil war’. This was explained by Tom Flanagan, Harper’s teacher and mentor at the ‘Calgary School’ (which appears to be one of the corporate elite’s ‘astroturf’ organisations), as well as one of Harper’s campaign advisors and strategists. He stated that:

‘Political campaigning is a civilized form of civil war. The point is to win the war, not to complain that people are fighting’. [(2009) Harper’s Team, 2nd edition, p.286]

You may remember Mr Flanagan as the commentator who called for Julian Assange’s assassination on TV, although three days later he claimed he was only joking. (Or was he waiting to see if US President Barack Obama took his advice? At least in Canada, if you are a right-wing academic or an advisor to a right-wing Prime Minister, you get the benefit of the doubt, so you can make demands for people to be assassinated on national TV; but don’t you dare call for pulling down a fence because then you could be in real trouble! I believe that is the charge to which Jaggi Singh pleaded guilty.) (And people think that the Canadian judiciary lacks a sense of perspective or humour!)

Don’t the Conservatives use tactics similar in style and ‘maliciousness’ to those of US Republicans, from evading scrutiny and accountability in Parliament, to preventing the House of Commons from accomplishing work that won’t benefit the Conservative Party (regardless of the potential benefits for Canadians).

A series of news reports since Conservatives took office in 2006 highlight four (4) of a number of tactics, such as:

(1) a 200-page ‘secret Tory handbook on obstructing and manipulating Commons committees’ (Canadian Press, 2007a);

(2) the use of Conservative Party logos and slogans on over-sized ‘prop cheques’ in publicity photo-ops when handing out of public funds and, contrary to the ‘non-partisan’ nature of government disbursements of public funds, sometimes unelected Conservative Party candidates were included while the actual MPs were excluded if they were not Conservatives (Delacourt, 2009);

(3) claiming that opposition MPs were ‘Taliban sympathizers’ or that they put the interests of the Taliban before Canadian soldiers, by raising questions about the Canadian Government’s handling of Afghan detainees. This is as close as you come to calling other Canadians ‘traitors’ or claiming that their actions are ‘treasonous’.

(What I don’t understand is why aren’t the motives of the government challenged? Clearly, if they are using patriotism as a motive to get Canadians to support them, but don’t want anyone questioning what they are doing [it is supposed to be a democracy after all!], then you have to challenge them, especially if they are trying to claim that those who call into question a dubious military expedition to support a government of warlords and corrupt politicians masquerading as ‘democratic’ representatives are ‘traitors’.

As Ambrose Bierce put it in his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’: ‘…. In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.’);

(4) and the use of taxpayer-funded political leaflets, known as ‘ten-percenters’, to propagandize against Liberal leader Stephan Dion and in favour of Harper’s government (Campion-Smith, 2009).

These were just some of the tactics that were used by the Conservative Party of Canada. (So, the Conservatives are certainly professionals in undermining Canadian parliamentary traditions, eh?) Now, just because Flanagan moves from metaphor to advocating the assassination of civilians engaged in free speech does not necessarily indicate intolerance (or any other kind of authoritarian attitude, does it?).

But, does it indicate a worldview that is ‘intolerant’ of those who ‘deviate’ away from that worldview? And does that ‘intolerance’ come out of or get manifested in ways which work against democratic governance (people need to remember that democracy is a process not a fixed state or ‘product’, that can be introduced at the barrel of a gun – or maintained by the truncheon or taser either).

It would also explain the massive over-spending on security for the G8 and G20 and the fact that dissent from a very narrow worldview would be treated as a national security threat.

How is it in a democracy that individuals can be kidnapped by men in civilian clothes in unmarked vans in broad daylight? I always thought that was something that happened under dictatorships (such as the one that my mother and her family fled)?

(The attitude of the police towards Canadians of all kinds of ages, backgrounds, dress, ethnicities and so on was quite clear. They demonstrated what they thought of people expressing free thought outside mass mediated thought by their actions. What I think is also important to know is, did they feel encouraged by superiors to behave in a brutal fashion towards people who are exercising what are meant to be ‘rights’? I used to think we lived in a democracy. But, since last June, it is less clear that we have ‘rights’ if they can so easily – and brutally – even literally – be trampled upon!)

If you think of politics as ‘civil war’, at what point does it cease to be a ‘metaphor’ and become the ‘reality’ in one’s way of thinking?

Clearly, if cognitive linguists can recognise that metaphors have real consequences, then I think we need to take the approach of the Canadian Conservative Party – or at least their top leadership – to politics/political campaigning quite seriously. It may be what explains the extreme and violent language and approach of the Republican Party towards Democrats in the USA and the particularly virulent and vitriolic rhetoric.

Think of the debate around the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona. But, what was the atmosphere in which Democrats, liberals and progressives as well as moderate Republicans have to deal with in the USA? Just look at the vitriolic language used against Democrats and progressives in the kinds of books and blogs. I certainly hope that this is not the direction in which politics in Canada is headed.

Clearly, in the first two cases of labour disputes, Harper has taken one side unequivocally. He has made it so much easier for corporations, like Air Canada and Canada Post, to ignore any serious possibility of negotiating in any seriousness. He has therefore set the stage for ‘civil war’ between different groups, primarily between the corporate elite and the unionised workers, but they will seek to play on the resentments of others who lack adequate wages and/or jobs (look at the vitriol against postal workers on numerous websites and blogs, it is very much like the right-wing attacks on progressives in the USA).

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) is one which has been in the forefront of achieving such things as maternity leave and recognition of different minority groups in the workplace. It is a union that has looked beyond narrow, sectional interests of its workplace to the broader society and fought for the greater public interest. For Harper and the Conservatives this is not a good thing: they are fighting for the narrow interests of the very rich. (If they weren’t, why are they promoting the same policies that have been used systematically for 30+ years and yet things have either stagnated or only got worse for 90% of Canadians?!)

The fuller quote from Flanagan’s book is: ‘Political campaigning is a civilized form of civil war. The point is to win the war, not to complain that people are fighting. Leave the whining to the utopians who fantasize about conflict-free societies’. [Tom Flanagan (2009) Harper’s Team, 2nd edition, p.286.]

If you think politics (and for Harper and his lot politics is political campaigning) is thought of as ‘civil war’ and those who ‘complain’ about decorum or process are merely ‘whining’, it does not indicate that there is much room for respect for one’s opponents in this kind of thinking either. This lack of respect or consideration about those who might complain about their ‘civil war’ approach to politics will only reinforce their contempt or disregard for their opponents. (Look at Senator Tkachuk’s remarks about Brigette DePape and her protest in the House of Commons: why is it okay for our elite members to equate peaceful dissent and protest with the ‘potential’ of being a ‘terrorist’? Is it not extreme. It is just as facetious and ignorant and intolerant as trying to compare Harper to Hitler. Yet, why hasn’t there been an outcry from the elite about that?)

‘Civil war’ does not begin with and end with weapons being used.

‘Civil war’ begins with a lack of respect or regard for one’s opponents and the subsequent ‘war of words’ helps to develop a contempt or de-humanization which starts to move one potentially to violence. Look at the art, literature, media and other forms of representation and debate in the lead-up to any civil war of the last 100 or more years. You will find that process of denigration and disrespect being fostered and developed through the language and images used to represent and refer to opponents.

(N.B.: I should point out that I am using short-handed references and will gladly supply the full reference for anyone who inquires about those sources drawn upon for this post.)

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The ‘difficult task’ in the language of cuts

Following various links to stories, I came across one on the CBC News website entitled: ‘Clement prepared for difficult Treasury Board post’ (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/05/19/ottawa-clement-treasury-board-public-service.html).

The audio clip on the left-hand side, below the headline, is captioned: ‘Clement prepared for difficult cuts’.

This is the language of (public – and private – sector) cuts. It is always a ‘difficult task’ and it is almost always written in the passive voice, as if they (the people taking the actions) have ‘no choice’ and are acting almost as if they are compelled to do so in a manner in which they would not have otherwise acted (unless, of course, compelled to).

However, this is incorrect. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has pointed out (http://rabble.ca/news/2011/06/federal-budget-set-unleash-significant-program-spending-cuts-ccpa), there are alternatives to the Conservatives’ proposed budget (cuts). None of what is taking place needs to take place; it is a conscious choice, a deliberative act on the part of people with the power to act.

Indeed, it is part of the Harper Conservative government agenda (it is not a ‘hidden’ agenda so much as one they have tried to hide behind various types of ‘spin’ and manipulation of language, such as the idea that this budget was the same as the one in March, which the CCPA quite rightly pointed out was not true!).

Discussions more generally in mainstream mass media usually write or speak of economies or economics in terms associated with ‘nature’. Humans, you see, are not able to control nature because it is a ‘force’ beyond human control (pay close attention to the next business or economic news story that you see and see what kinds of metaphors they use). It is what corporate elites and their politicians want you to think because it also has the added bonus (for them) of explaining away how they have to make those cuts (that you feel, but not them) (you know, before they hit that ‘debt wall’).

The use of language leads us to the frames and framing. Whoever frames the question, will force the answer – if not the one they want, then the answer they want you to give.

N.B.: At many mainstream media outlets, I should point out, journalists are being compelled to produce more stories with fewer resources (and time!) and therefore will fall back on convention and what they have been taught or learned. This doesn’t make it right, but perhaps journalists may be compelled to respond to people complaining to their editors (appointed by owners and who usually have the last word!) about the language used.

Also, another useful strategy might be to ask yourself, how else might that phrase be written? ‘Clement will make cuts that will make public sector employees lives worse’; OR ‘Clement relishes wielding power to carry out his ideological beliefs in small government’; OR ‘Clement relishes chance to squeeze the middle class’.

Frankly, I do not believe that the people making these ‘difficult cuts’ feel any of the ‘pain’ that the rest of us do. Otherwise, why would they (especially the Conservatives and their corporate allies) spend so much money on advertisements and spin trying to cover it up or make it appear different to the way it is? (Or try to get you to turn on other people who are a wee bit worse off than you are!)

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