Trigger Warning: this article contains discussion of racism, homophobia, and prejudice
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” wrote George Orwell in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. In it, he bemoans the ‘state’ of the English language and discusses the way politics shapes language and, in turn, is shaped by it.
It’s not hard to guess what Orwell’s opinion of today’s political language would be. As well as the general prevalence of soundbites and slogans, the government is now dominated by people who are, at best, callous and at worst, deliberately offensive with their choice of words.
From Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, saying that UNICEF should be “ashamed of itself” for feeding needy children in Britain and that Grenfell victims “lacked common-sense” to Boris Johnson branding gay men ‘bum boys’ and comparing veiled Muslim women to letterboxes, the Conservative Party has a long history of casually insensitive comments. It doesn’t seem to have negatively affected their careers either – Boris Johnson’s comments were all long before he became Prime Minister. Likewise, none of them have ever been formally reprimanded by any authority figures. However, the phenomenon is not monopolised by the Conservative Party – indeed similar comments are common, unsurprisingly, among right-wing populist parties such as UKIP, the Brexit Party, or the now defunct British National Party and former Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, once described ‘some zionists’ as ‘lacking English irony.’
Words like this are obviously offensive and unpleasant. Should we try to prevent this sort of speech propagating?
the spread of dehumanising and offensive language only leads to the spreading of negative stereotypes.
Language hurts. It’s upsetting to hear someone talk about you in these terms and the spread of dehumanising and offensive language only leads to the spreading of negative stereotypes. When harsh or violent language becomes commonplace, it encourages and tacitly approves harsh or violent thought. However, freedom of speech is a very important value in the West. In the UK we essentially take for granted the idea that, within reason, the state will not prevent us expressing our own opinions. In a democracy, that’s a pretty fundamental right. If the state was able to control our discourse, elections would become a sham.
However, freedom of speech doesn’t imply freedom from reproach. Just as insulting a family member can be expected to irritate or upset them, which isn’t an infringement on your right to do it, making racist or homophobic comments can be expected to upset the public. Why, then, is this sort of thing so common? If Britain dislikes Boris Johnson talking about black people having ‘watermelon smiles,’ wouldn’t they evict him from power. Why hasn’t this already happened? Bluntly, because the majority of Brits tolerate it.
That dispels the basic idea of ‘cancel culture.’ It’s certainly true that the internet can sometimes mount a ‘tweet-storm’, and that occasionally the most egregious stances can result in people losing their jobs. However, to claim that ‘nobody can say anything these days’ is a deliberate misreading of the current political climate. Freedom of speech is alive and well in this country.
It’s also worth noting that not all of these comments are equal. Boris Johnson’s comments held almost no water with Conservative members in his leadership election and he won a landslide election victory in 2019. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comments on Grenfell, in particular, were branded elitist. He was removed from the campaign trail and went back to campaign in his constituency. Whilst he has still been appointed to a cabinet role following the comments, his career probably has been permanently damaged. When the question of promotion is raised in future reshuffles, his brand as ‘the toff who sneered at Grenfell’ will surely be a factor.
Boris Johnson has spent decades cultivating an image of himself that is careless with words; his offensive stereotypes are definitely easier to imagine as simple errors rather than proof of an underlying ideology.
What’s the difference between Johnson and Rees-Mogg?
Firstly, there’s probably an element of context. Boris Johnson has spent decades cultivating an image of himself that is careless with words; his offensive stereotypes are definitely easier to imagine as simple errors rather than proof of an underlying ideology. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, seems like exactly the kind of person who would secretly harbour elitist views. Johnson’s comments were also in print, where it’s easier to pass things off as a misinterpreted joke. Rees-Mogg’s were on camera, so his tone of voice and facial expression make such a defence impossible.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, our political culture considers elitism and other discrimination fairly differently. To some, Boris Johnson’s ‘non-PC’ speech belies an ‘authenticity.’ For many, it’s not a drawback of our current crop of politicians, but a positive. To some extent, that’s completely understandable, typical politicians often just sound weird. In avoiding gaffes or difficult answers, they often sound weasel-worded or mealy-mouthed. Partially, this harks back Orwell’s essay – simple catchy language lends itself to simple nativist politics, complex political ideas, meanwhile, are hard to express within the current bounds of British political language. It’s also a talent from the Conservative Party, though. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and countless other Old Etonians in the Tory Party are good at making themselves sound reasonable and authentic. Despite living very different lives to the average, they manage to sound like someone who speaks from the heart. It makes them relatable despite the odds.
Not all authenticity is good authenticity, though. Where many regard mild racism and homophobia as ‘non-Politically Correct’ (something we all think but shouldn’t say), elitism is seen as a toxic idea in and of itself (something we shouldn’t think either). This reflects a worrying prevalence of underlying latent racism in our cultural discourse. Sure, it’s a small minority of Brits, but an influential one in both General Elections and the Conservative Party. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the British public support racism or homophobia – any overt discrimination would be severely punished by the electorate. Use of offensive language, though, is often given tacit approval by many, which is telling.
In 2012, several Conservative MPs, including Dominic Raab, now Foreign Secretary, Priti Patel, now Home Secretary, and Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, co-authored a treatise entitled ‘Britannia Unchained.’ In it they described Britain as a nation of ‘idlers’ bemoaning the ‘laziness’ of British people. Although it was met with substantial criticism at the time, almost all of the co-authors experienced a rapid boost to their careers. Indeed, a recent ConservativeHome poll of Conservative Members rated Truss at poll position, with Raab and Patel at 4th and 6th respectively. This set them all substantially above Boris Johnson.
Britain’s political discourse is disturbing. The prevalence of statements universally acknowledged in the media as offensive is concerning.
The truth, then, is that among an instrumental part of the electorate, these aren’t gaffes but what they want to hear. Preventing the comments, then, won’t do any good. If the current crop of populist politicians stopped espousing these views, Nigel Farage, UKIP, or the British National Party are doubtless waiting in the wings to do it for them. The only way to eliminate this sort of offensive speech is to convince the public that it’s wrong.
Britain’s political discourse is disturbing. The prevalence of statements universally acknowledged in the media as offensive is concerning. No amount of mainstream media condemnation or Guardian editorials seem to encourage a change. Our politicians are reflecting the attitudes of a large minority of the UK. Rather than bemoaning offensive language, then, the UK needs to work harder to persuade, rather than enforce. It isn’t enough to stamp out racist, homophobic, or otherwise derogatory language, the ideology itself has to be beaten.