Using language in cultural battles

Language has always been a powerful weapon to influence public opinion. Nowadays, social debates are often framed as authentic cultural battles, but it is worth asking to what extent following this logic helps to resolve conflicts.

Santiago Leyra Curiá-October 10, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo credit: © Mateusz D

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Translated by Peter Damian-Grint

September 25, 2022-Reading Time: 5 minutes

Translated by Peter Damian-Grint

George Orwell's 1984 has become for many a prescient guide, ahead of its time, to the dangers posed by the social and political totalitarianism under which we can all end up living without almost realizing it. It is said that he probably had in mind the Soviet Union-that great prison that has happily disappeared today, thanks to the help (among others) of the recently deceased Mikhail Gorbachev. But Orwell's allegory is valid for many of today's totalitarianisms. One of the contributions of the British writer (born in what is now India) is what he called Newspeak, a concept that defines how words should be so that the mass of citizens can be more easily subdued by the Party.

Years later, the essay Don't Think of an Elephant by the American cognitive linguist George Lakoff explained the need to have a coherent language that allows you to define the issues at stake in the public space from the point of view of your own values and feelings, if you want to advance your ideological and political agenda in a society. What Lakoff is saying is that his party (in this case, the U.S. Democrats) were not able to construct a convincing frame for its way of seeing life. Or, at least, not as efficiently and effectively as the Republicans did.

Frames of knowledge and language

Frames are mental structures that shape the way individuals view the world. When a word is heard, a frame or collection of frames is activated in that individual's brain. Changing the frame also means changing the way people see the world. So Lakoff gives great importance, when framing events according to one's own values, to not using the language of the adversary (not to think of an elephant). This is because the language of the adversary will point to a frame that is not the desired frame.

Lakoff's influential little book argues that both conservative and progressive policies have a basic moral consistency. They are founded on different visions of familiar morality that extend into the world of politics. Progressives have a moral system that is rooted in a particular conception of family relationships: it is the model of protective parents, who believe that they should understand and support their children, listen to them and give them freedom and trust in others, with whom they should cooperate. The triumphant language of the conservatives would, instead, be based on the antagonistic model of the strict parent based on the idea of personal effort, distrust of others and the impossibility of a true community life.

In this sense, the conservative advantage that Lakoff saw in the American politics of the first decade of our century is that the politics of that country habitually used conservative language and such words dragged the other politicians and parties (mainly the Democrats) towards a conservative worldview. And all this because, for Lakoff, framing is a process that consists precisely in choosing the language that fits the framer's worldview.

Conservative and progressive perspectives

Lakoff gives some examples from the conservative perspective: it is wrong to give people things they have not earned, because then they will fail to be disciplined and will become dependent and immoral. The conception of taxes as a disgrace and the need to lower them is framed very graphically in the phrase "tax relief". Progressives should not use that phrase; instead they should use "fiscal solidarity", "sustaining the welfare state", etc. On gays, he argues that in the U.S. and under the conservative lens the word "gay" at that time connoted an unrestrained and unhealthy lifestyle. Progressives changed that frame to "equal marriage", "the right to love whomever you want", etc.

The frames that scandalize progressives are those that conservatives consider, or used to consider, true or desirable (and vice versa). However, if the prevailing worldview is that agreement or consensus is not only possible (because human beings are, in essence, good) but desirable (and we have to do our bit to make it so), we must try to eradicate from the political arena the bitter struggle, disqualification, ignoring or discrediting the other... And the dominant party or ideology may manage to impose its ideas and laws without its adversaries being able to contradict them, or change them once imposed, without being accused of being fascists.

Language in cultural battles

Obviously, the United States is not Europe, nor is Europe the United States, but I think we are all aware of how the cultural and legislative victories of the last 20 years reflect a model in which language is decisive in winning those battles... The victory of what some call "woke ideology" (advocated by left-wing political movements and perspectives that emphasize the identity politics of LGTBI people, the black community and women) in many of our laws and customs has come about because some people have worked, thought and fought hard to make it so. And the use of language has played an important role in those victories.

"Yes means yes", "death with dignity", the "right to sexual and reproductive health", "equal marriage", the "right to define one's own sexual identity", "free public schooling for all", the "fight against climate change", and so on: these are all examples of cultural and legislative battles intelligently waged through language. There would be other examples in the other ideological sector: the "right to life" (with the recent legislative victory in the U.S. Supreme Court), "conscientious objection", "educational freedom", the "parents' right to the moral education of their children", etc.

Tolerance and firmness in cultural battles

I think that we should preserve and promote pluralism and consensus, talk to everyone, avoid labeling, avoid Manichaeism, learn from those who are different, respect opinions different from our own, and such issues that are characteristic of democratic societies. But we cannot ignore that there are people, entities and interests bent on changing the social and legislative reality of our countries, and the changes are not always in favor of human dignity, law and religious diversity: sometimes those changes lead us to totalitarianism. I recommend reading Victor Klemperer's classic book Language of the Third Reich: a philologist's notebook and Alfonso López Quintás's Language strategy and human manipulation.

In 1991 the American sociologist James Davison Hunter published a book called Culture Wars where he pointed out that, although historically the political campaign issues had been health, security, education and economic growth, now a new political-ideological paradigm was emerging to undermine the foundations of traditional Western values. Language-the word-can be a means to subjugate societies or to liberate them. And we may like arguing more or less according to our temperament, but there are times when we have no choice but to do so-in a civilized and respectful manner with everyone-if we want to defend ourselves and the ideas and values that seem most valuable to us.

Let us use words intelligently so that they may be at the service of peace, human dignity, freedom and all human rights. And let us be attentive, so as to be able to unmask the outrages of these rights when they come disguised with beautiful words.

The authorSantiago Leyra Curiá

Corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation of Spain.

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