The use of language in cultural battles

Language has always been a powerful weapon to influence public opinion. Today, social debates are often framed as cultural battles, but to what extent does following this logic help to resolve conflicts?

September 25, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo: ©Mateusz D

George Orwell's 1984 has become for many an enlightened guide, ahead of its time, to the dangers of the social and political totalitarianism under which we can all end up living without almost realizing it. It is said that he probably had the Soviet Union in mind, that great prison that has happily disappeared today thanks to the help, among others, of the recently deceased Mikhail Gorbachev. But his 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 neo-language, 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 sphere from 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) had not been able to construct a convincing framing of its way of seeing life. Or, at least, not as efficiently and effectively as the Republicans did.

Knowledge and language frameworks

Frames are mental structures that shape the way individuals view the world. When a word is heard, a frame or a collection of frames is activated in that individual's brain. Changing that frame also means changing the way people see the world. Therefore, Lakoff gives great importance, when framing events according to one's own values, not to use 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.

This influential little book argues that both conservative and progressive policies have a basic moral consistency. They are grounded in different visions of family 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 be based instead on the antagonistic model of the strict parent based on the idea of personal effort, distrust towards 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 his language and such words dragged the other politicians and parties (mainly the Democrats) towards the 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 point of view: it is immoral 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 and instead 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 frameworks 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 eradicate from the political arena the bitter struggle, disqualification, ignoring or discrediting the other.... And it is possible that the dominant party or ideology manages 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 and Spain is not 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 people call Woke ideology (advocated by leftist 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 is just yes, death with dignity, the right to sexual and reproductive health, equal marriage, the right to define one's sexual identity, free public schooling for all, the fight against climate change, and so on. These are examples of cultural and legislative battles intelligently waged through language. There would be different examples in the other ideological sector: the right to life (with the recent legislative victory in the U.S. SC), conscientious objection, educational freedom, the right of parents to the moral education of their children, etc.

Tolerance and firmness in cultural battles

I think that it is convenient to preserve and promote pluralism, consensus, talk to everyone, do not label, flee from Manichaeism, learn from the different, respect opinions different from our own and these types of issues typical 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 not always those changes are in favor of human dignity, law and religious diversity, but sometimes those changes lead us to totalitarianism. I recommend reading the classic book by Victor Klemperer, "The language of the Third Reich, notes of a philologist" and "The manipulation of man through language" by Alfonso López Quintás.

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

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 vigilant so that we can unmask the abuses of these rights when they come disguised in fine words.

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