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Shut up, listen to me

india Updated: Jun 29, 2011 23:22 IST

We might wish politicians and pundits to engage in reasoned debate about the truth. But as we know, this is not the reality of political discourse. Instead we often encounter bizarre and improbable claims about public figures. Words are misappropriated and meanings twisted. These tactics are not really about making substantive claims, but rather play the role of silencing. They are, if you will, linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of others.

In her 1993 paper, ‘Speech Acts and Pornography’, philosopher of language Jennifer Hornsby used an example: Suppose that men are led to believe that when women refuse a sexual advance they don’t mean it. Women, then, will not be understood to be refusing, even when they are. If certain kinds of pornography lead men to think that women are not sincere when they utter the word ‘no’, and women are aware that men think this, those kinds of pornography would rob women of the ability to refuse. Using ‘no’ to refuse a sexual advance is what is known as a speech act — a way of doing something by using words. Hornsby and Rae Langton’s work raises the possibility that a medium may undermine the ability of a person or group — in this case, women — to employ a speech act by representing that person or group as insincere in their use of it. There are multiple purposes to political speech, only one of which is to assert truths. Nevertheless, we expect a core of sincerity from our leaders, not a Muammar Gaddafi.

Silencing robs others of the ability to engage in speech acts, such as assertion. But there is another kind of silencing familiar in the political domain. It is possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims. One of the best investigations of propaganda was presented by Victor Klemperer in his book The Language of the Third Reich. As he writes, propaganda “changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence… it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures in its poison.” Klemperer was thinking of the incessant use of the term “heroisch” (“heroic”) to justify the military adventures of the National Socialist State. Obviously, the mechanism described by Klemperer is not used for such odious purposes today. Nevertheless, there has been a similar appropriation of the term “freedom” in political discourse. Most would agree that heroism and freedom are fundamentally good things. But the terms “heroisch” and “freedom” have been appropriated for purposes that don’t have much connection with the virtues of their original meanings.

Similarly, whatever one thinks of tax-cuts, it is difficult to engage in reasoned debate when they have been relabeled “tax relief”. It is easy to say “a tax cut is not always good policy,” but considerably more difficult to say “tax relief is not always good policy”.

Silencing is only one kind of propaganda. In silencing, one removes the ability of a target person or group to communicate. Given our current environment, it is worthwhile bearing in mind the dangers of the manipulation of language. What may begin as a temporary method to circumvent reasoned discussion and debate for the sake of a prized political goal may very well end up permanently undermining the trust required for its existence.

Jason Stanley is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, USA. The New York Times. The views expressed by the author are personal.