COUNTRY people grow used to the inability of some townsfolk to face the realities of life. They talk of manure— or even FYM (Farmyard Manure)— instead of something earthier and they’ve seen to it that butchers no longer display recognisable carcasses, but present meat as if it had nothing to do with an animal. Choose a word carefully and you know that you can change the atmosphere or even the outcome of a debate.
Marx (Theatre, page 140) and his followers were among the first to recognise that capturing the language is a big step towards winning the argument. If you call gas pumped out of the North Sea ‘natural gas’, you’re well on the way to public acceptance. Call genetically modified tomatoes ‘Frankenstein foods’ and you’ll get them off the shelves in no time at all. In this way, much of an argument is already concluded; it’s a sort of spoken version of predictive text.
When the Financial Services Authority wanted to improve the way that consumers were treated, they published a code called ‘Treating Customers Fairly’. The phrase was designed to suggest that anyone who argued that the code was deficient actually wanted to treat customers unfairly.
A similar procedure was followed in establishing the Government’s Climate Change Levy. Badly formulated, random in its effects and complex in its workings, there were plenty of reasons for asking for revision. All such arguments were answered by pointing to the title and suggesting that, deep down, critics wanted to avoid fighting climate change!
The Government tried the same trick in naming its Brexit Bill ‘The Great Repeal Bill’, which would have given it the status of a great reforming act. The lie was in the language. It was very late in the day when ministers were finally persuaded that parliamentary rules might mean that such a title would restrict its content and make it unwork- able. Only then was it properly named the EU Withdrawal Bill—much more accurate, but far less immediately appealing.
This predictive use of language has spread, is spreading and ought to be suppressed. When the Chief Constable of Wiltshire wanted to avoid criticism of his force in pursuing the unfounded allegations against Ted Heath, he referred to the complainants as ‘victims’, thus appearing to prejudge the case from the first. Even the most biased of newspapers would have used the phrase ‘alleged victims’, but that, of course, would not have given the same impression.
Loading the language is almost always an exercise in positioning. In announcing the longawaited publication of the report on deaths in police custody, the minister in the House of Lords consistently talked of relatives as their ‘loved ones’. This was to make an unfounded and sentimental assumption. Many who are in trouble with the police are in that situation precisely because they are not loved. However, she wasn’t really talking about them, but about herself and her colleagues—imputing her concerned attitudes onto the relatives thus ensured a better hearing for her announcement.
Phrase it correctly and you can alter perception. Every action from touching a person’s knee all the way to rape is described as ‘inappropriate’ —never bad or wrong. It makes values subjective and able to be manipulated. ‘Quantitative easing’ lets you get away with printing money; ‘misspeaking’ is better than lying.
Language alters attitudes: forename instead of Christian name; partner rather than spouse; elitism for excellence. People have changed the world by what they say, but also by the words they choose. We must teach our children not to be manipulated by predictive language.
‘Loading the language is almost always an exercise in positioning