The politics of language, framing and discourse

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In 1964, Herbert Marcuse wrote about the way language and technology were being manipulated by the dominant interests in advanced industrial society to serve their ends. He identified two forces in society: those forces capable of containing qualitative change and those forces which may break the containment and explode the society. As might be expected, most of his examples were concerned with the nuclear arms race and the irrationality of ‘the rational’ as expressed in the language of the dominant discourse. Words like: ‘clean bomb’, ‘cosy nuclear shelters’, ‘arming for peace’. His pessimistic thesis was that the totalitarian forces of containment had almost total control because of their power to co-opt any opposition. Not surprisingly, his conclusion offers no hope for a better world:

The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.

A lot has happened in the 40 years since Marcuse, on both sides of politics. The ruling class has continued to manipulate language and discourse to consolidate its power. Words such as ‘tax relief’, ‘terrorism’, ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ are presented in the context of particular mental frames and dominant discourses which influence the nature of the public debate about these issues.

‘Tax relief’ is presented as part of an egalitarian frame – ‘level playing field’ – whereas the actual intention is to disproportionately benefit the rich and to act as a justification in future for cutbacks in social welfare. Tax relief needs to be seen in its historical context of how the tax system in Australia has operated as a tool to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. Tax relief will not restructure the system of wealth distribution, but rather continue to be manipulated by the super rich – much in the way Kerry Packer, a self-confessed tax minimiser, managed to do so for his own ends. Ironically, while ‘welfare cheats’ continue to be hounded by the law, the Packers of the world are heralded as Aussie heroes by the shock jocks and the capitalist press. Somehow, ‘tax crook’ doesn’t carry the same connotation as ‘dole bludger’ or ‘welfare cheat’.

Thanks to Bill Leak

The events of September 11, 2001 saw the beginning of an ‘anti-terrorism’ discourse which has given Western governments an open cheque book for increasing surveillance of particular people. This produced the inevitable rise in racism, particularly Islamophobia. But one of the measures of hegemonic framing is the extent to which the priorities as set by the government are publicly legitimated. For example, if the ‘war on terror’ is top priority, then we must accept that an increase in surveillance and racism are simply unfortunate side effects. Or if military invasion is one of the tactics for the ‘war on terror’ then we must accept the death of civilians, the destruction of public infrastructure and historical monuments as an unfortunate side effect. The challenge is how do we reverse these priorities? George Lakoff (2004) has labeled this type of frame as ‘the strict father model’. This model is based on a patriarchal world view of physical strength, force, protection and a strong sense of discipline and is so well established that it is a simple extension into debates on issues such as abortion and child care. However, perhaps the most insidious effect of the dominant framing of the ‘war on terror’ is the appeal to ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ – presented as necessary conditions for democracy. Hence, by definition, ‘evil nations’ are undemocratic in the way they restrict choice and freedom, for example in female roles.

However, the term ‘democracy’ is what social scientists call a floating signifier – the meaning of the term is not important, it is the connotation that matters. Democracy has a positive connotation and to be critical of the use of the concept is to condemn the speaker for supporting totalitarianism. This is because of the way western society has evolved with thought patterns of binary opposites. For example, off/on, black/white, sick/healthy, which all tend to present a distorted view of reality; the idea that there are only two genders. A critical appraisal of ‘choice’ shows firstly that choice is not evenly distributed in society – clearly people with wealth and privilege have more choice than the poor and other disadvantaged minorities. Secondly, the perpetuation of choice enables the wealthy to maintain their position of privilege. A good example of this is the dominant education discourse which stresses that parents are entitled to select the school of their choice. As a consequence, a huge proportion
of government funds are spent on elite private schools. It is difficult to argue against this position given that the debate is framed as a ‘freedom of choice’ issue. However the principle of choice does not extend to issues where the government holds a strong conservative moral line – one cannot choose whom one marries or to have an abortion.

President Bush tells us that America, as the great liberator, invades countries in the name of freedom, but what this means is ‘freedom’ for America to exploit that country for America’s interests, be they economic, ideological or strategic.

One of the most powerful floating signifiers is ‘progress’. Anyone who attempts to argue against ‘progress’ is automatically labelled as ‘stuck in traditional ways and anti-change’. However, when ‘progress’ is analysed in power terms, sometimes the veil can be lifted. Williams and Rennie (1972) describe a situation in England where urban development was to take place. The development would require the relocation of a large number of working class families who had resided in the area for many years.

A few teachers at the local school, dismayed by the apathy of the residents to the planned development – ‘after all, it’s progress!’ – began a series of research sessions with the students. This amounted to a critical analysis of urban redevelopment including evaluation of the architectural and social justification verses the underlying economic interests and the social and psychological consequences of forced relocation.

The first question students were asked is: ‘Why do we need these new office blocks?’ Students initially answered: ‘Because of the shortage of office space.’ However, research showed that there was about a 45% vacancy rate. The second question was: ‘Who benefits?’ The research for this question required students to compare the resale values of similar properties 5-10 years later. The third question was: ‘What happens to people who are forced to relocate?’ The research showed a rise in divorce, alcoholism and crime when these communities are disrupted. So much for ‘progress’!

The outcome of this consciousness raising exercise (which presumably was also passed on by some of the children to their parents) was the mobilisation of the residents in opposition to the scheme. Residents erected barricades and lobbied for support from individuals in positions of power. The redevelopment plan was eventually shelved.

Combating dominant frames, language and discourses is not easy because they appeal to our ‘common sense’ models of the world (e.g. patriarchal models, ‘stranger danger’), while alternative models (e.g. same sex relations) tend to be marginalised and rarely provide mainstream options. Nevertheless, these frames and language are continually challenged, in the alternative media and in personal conversations around the country.

But more is needed. Schools need to introduce a subject to develop critical language skills, which focuses on providing practice in identifying and confronting authentic contradictions between rhetoric and social structure (Lally,1978). Introducing such a topic into school curriculum would be difficult because the dominant discourse on education is that ‘education is apolitical’ and as Lakoff has pointed out analysis is a political act.

Changing language and combating dominant frames will not change the social system. But it will bring the nature of oppressions into the public arena and promote new connections for alliances of oppositional forces. The more connections the better.

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