On Politics and Language

September 13, 2013

This will be the last post for the foreseeable future on this blog, as I have accepted a politically restricted position and will be ceasing partisan comment. Given this, I’ve decided to actually explain the blog’s title, which – alongside people pointing out its obvious pretension – is something that has apparently caused some confusion.

Logos (pronounced low-goss), from the subheading given above, refers to a rational principle. It is an ancient Greek word, and has taken on many meanings for a range of different authors, differing even from Plato to Aristotle. It is Plato’s meaning which is relevant here: the logos is the means by which we access the eidos, the Forms. For those not familiar with this theory, a coarse form of Plato’s argument is as follows. We can recognise a unity across differing objects – for example, we can see a red car and say that it is red, see a red brick and say that it is red, and see a red bucket and say that it is red. How do we recognise red, when there is not one red in one form, but various in many? There must be an exemplar that we call upon in order to recognise such abstract concepts, such unities. This exemplar is a Form, an eidos.

We can have Forms of any abstract concept: the Form of a horse, say, is a perfect exemplar of Horsiness. All particular examples of any abstraction approach the perfection of a form, but do not fully achieve it, but it is in their proximity to the ideal that we are able to recognise them. We gain knowledge of the Forms through a logos, which is a way of expressing the content of a Form. The classical example is that of shape: Socrates says in the Meno, when asked how one would explain shape to someone with no understanding of it, that shape is the limit of a solid. This latter clause is the logos of the eidos of shape. It looks rather like a definition, and indeed one could claim that Plato holds a theory of meaning that states that a word has a fixed meaning given by a fixed definition, and that definition can be uncovered through philosophy, which allows one to identify the logos of a particular Form, or the rational principle by which one accesses it. This is a very primitive statement of his argument, but it will suffice for the point I wish to make.

This understanding of meaning as fixed is one that is perennially popular in philosophy, even to this day when at least one famous academic has made his career from taking as the starting point of his argument: “We want words to have a fixed meaning. What needs to be the case for this to work?” However, it is almost trivially untrue, as even the most cursory reader of Wittgenstein will be aware. Instead, words take part in games of meaning, in which participants in a particular game may assign a meaning to a word while other games assign a different meaning. Meaning is thus fluid and only given in how the word is used. However, it remains crucially important, even without the fixed points of eidos: only with a shared logos can we successfully communicate.

What does any of this philosophical abstraction have to do with politics in the real world, you might be asking? The answer is a great deal, because our main political parties have all been complicit in activities which subvert the logos for their own ends, and in doing so have created a situation in which we are governed by groups of people who in a very meaningful way no longer speak the same language as the public.

The first example of this – indeed, the example that directly inspired the title of this blog – is a phrase used extensively by the Liberal Democrats: ‘local campaigner’. Typically, this phrase is used in the Party’s public-facing literature to describe candidates at both local and parliamentary levels. It seems innocuous – the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem candidates do campaign on local issues, and do so genuinely. My objection to it is not based on dislike of candidates, but rather on the way in which its use in this context changes its meaning. The habitual use by Liberal Democrats of this phrase to refer exclusively to their candidates in their literature and not people who campaign for their local area without political aspiration adds to their logos for this phrase, while the public spirit inherent in campaigning lends the phrase an air of altruism when interpreted by the public. These logoi are as below:

libdem

While it may seem unusual to think of Lib Dems as seeking power, it is clear that the use of this phrase packs in a great deal of utility: the leftmost logos presents an inducement to vote for the candidate.The Lib Dems are not lying when they use this phrase to describe their candidates – in my experience, politicians rarely lie – but instead they have bastardised the meaning of a phrase for political gain.

Of course, the public is not quite so easily deceived as I paint here, but we have two options for their response: either they accept the Lib Dems’ use of ‘Local Campaigner’ as being equivalent to their use (and thus the Lib Dems are not really communicating with them as they are in two different language games) or they recognise that the Lib Dems are using the phrase differently and that actual communication is not happening. Either way, the use of this phrase with its Lib Dem logos erects a barrier to genuine conversation between politicians and the public. It is the case, however, that they are not necessarily aware that this could be in any way considered untoward, which I shall consider later.

The second example I want to pick up on was used by Ed Milliband in his speech to the TUC conference. In it, he claimed that he was presenting a ‘fundamentally different vision of our economy’. In practice, this means a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and potentially something like Germany’s KfW running alongside the existing Green Investment Bank, with perhaps a greater reluctance to deregulate employment thrown in. ‘Fundamentally different’ is, as a result, an exaggeration at best. However, it is highly likely that Milliband believes that he is presenting something very different, because of a feature of political trench warfare: all differences are magnified by competition. Thus, we have two logoi that are even further apart:

labour

Nonetheless, this use of the phrase retains its utility, as it prompts party supporters to believe that Labour is genuinely pushing for real change. However, the sheer disconnect on show here means that such supporters will necessarily be disaffected as time passes, because they are literally incapable of communicating with their leadership using phrases like this.

To maintain parity, the last phrase I want to consider is the current form of the perennial political favourite ‘hard working families’, the slogan of the Conservative Party: ‘For Hard Working People’. This phrase is interesting, as bound up with its positive tone is its negative: it is against people who don’t work hard. It is also deceptive, functioning like ‘local campaigner’ by providing the implication that it will support all hard-working people, even if they fall foul of another more capricious hard-working person who employs them. We therefore have:

tories

Again, communication is hampered by meanings that differ; meanings that have been subverted in the name of political utility. The practice of assessing messages against both polling and focus groups is done with the explicit intention of finding a package of words that delivers support regardless of what those words mean to the person saying them.

The end result is a political class that is incapable of communicating with the general public, and more troublingly, with each other: all three parties have their own language games, and debate between relies upon the protagonists being sufficiently intellectually adept to move between games at will. It is hardly surprising that the public is increasingly disaffected with a political class that does not speak the same language as them – not, in its normal usage, because they use big words and overblown rhetoric, but because they do not share a common logos. UKIP does at present, which partly explains its rise, but the temptation of the sheer utility of abusing meaning in this way will overcome them in the end.

People working in politics will doubtless find this very odd, overly abstract and unimportant compared with the big issues of the day. What does it matter that they distort the meaning of a few words in order to save the NHS, for example? To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy with the foreign exchange market. At every moment, large computers are comparing prices for currency in all the markets around the world, and where they find a momentary opportunity for arbitrage, conducting hundreds of trades a second. The profit on each trade is typically in fractions of a penny, but the sheer volume of these trades makes the practice very lucrative indeed. The same applies to the abuse of the logos: each time a politician says something using a meaning with which they privately disagree, they commit a fractional sin. When they do it hundreds of times a day, they commit a much bigger sin. Even worse, by sheer repetition the sin is normalised, to the point that most political types reading this will respond with ‘Well, that’s just how it is’.

It cannot continue. Without a genuine effort to communicate with the public using meanings that we all share, our political system is left at risk of even greater disaffection and the dangers of a public growing disenchanted with democracy. Without bravery from our politicians, the logos will continue to decline.

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The Schismatic ‘We’

March 18, 2011

Consider the following two sentences:

“First, the tax that is avoided through loopholes in tax law, could be collected. This, quite extraordinarily, is the easiest solution to the problem we face.”

“The corporation tax burden is borne by workers and owners. We should tax those owners in a consistent way and not in an arbitrary way.”

The first is from a report called ‘The Great Tax Parachute’ by the Green New Deal Group of prominent lefties, while the second is from a report called ‘UK Uncut Unravelled’ by notorious rightey Tim Worstall. What I want to highlight in this post is the way in which both sentences apparently use ‘we’ in exactly the same way while coming to very different conclusions.

To begin the discussion, let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I went for a job with a prominent charity, which shall remain nameless. I was asked the question – the quite notorious interview question – ‘What does teamwork mean to you?’ I responded, ‘Teamwork to me means ensuring that everyone’s role on the team is well understood, and ensuring that everyone has a part to play in achieving our shared objectives.’

I didn’t get the job. I called up for feedback, and was told, ‘We felt that you weren’t a team player. You should’ve put greater emphasis on helping out your colleagues when they needed support.’

I was somewhat flabbergasted. For me, working as a team meant working with people towards a shared goal, rather than providing mutual support. I assumed that my colleagues would be competent enough at what they did to not require any support from myself. Later, as I moved between organisations and started working in teams that did in fact consist of highly competent people, I understood that teamwork required mutual support – but not because of someone elses’ weakness, but because in practical terms some priorities will require more hands than others at different times, and everyone on a team has to be ready to pitch in.

This sort of distinction – between unconditional support and support founded upon a recognition of the competence of others – is what I’d like to highlight. In both of the sentences above, the word ‘we’ is used to refer to society, and the recommendations made are made in the understanding that they will be taken as recommendations for how we move society forward. They both implicitly assume that the reader is engaged with society; that they do not stand outside it, looking in at an internal struggle. They assume that society refers to the social and legal structures that comprise the United Kingdom. Even with this apparently identical use of ‘we’, they come to opposing conclusions.

Why should this be the case? Surely, given that both sides possess the same understanding of society, they should move towards the same conclusions? After all, UK Uncut is not claiming that the likes of Vodafone are outwith society; quite the opposite, that they are within society and are not paying their dues to it. What’s implied with this division of ‘we’ is a division in their conceptions of the individuals who comprise that society.

The following sentence:

“We’re all in this together.”

has come into common use, especially in relation to the cuts. The differing ways in which it is used are telling, because it’s impossible for the ‘we’ in that sentence to be ambivalent in the  same way as those in the sentences above. Its rejection by some points to it referring to a conception of individuals within society which is unacceptable. What is that conception?

It seems clear that, to those who reject the sentence, individuals within a society are not simply autonomous; rather they have a duty to support others within that society as a condition of membership. It is that failure to provide support that leads to the moral rejection of the actions of Vodafone; their actions have sent them on a path to their ejection from society, and it is in this sense that the UKUncut protests are understood by their activists. They are protesting a social transgression, rather than an illegality. However, social transgressions and illegality are easily conflated, which is why the protests have used language indicative of illegality when referring to Vodafone. In doing so, they have run into conflict with people who hold a quite different conception of individuals within a society.

As discussed above, I have always conceived my colleagues as autonomous individuals responsible for their own wellbeing and for their own area of work. I recognise competence rather than fulfilment of duty. In this sense, I am a member of a society composed of individuals whose responsibility is to their work, rather than to each other. To me, ‘We’re all in this together’ means that all our work will be impacted – bankers will be fined, less efficient staff will be fired, and less important projects will be cut. In this sense, an individual transgresses against society if they fail to work while being able to do so and so require others to provide for them; this is the area in which duty is applied. Other matters are handled via the legal system; via the series of social conventions around democracy and debate that go towards determining the formal rules of society.

It is therefore clear that under the latter sense of ‘we’, tax avoidance is largely irrelevant in terms of duty; there is no shirking of work involved. However, under the former there is a question of duty – duty to contribute to society beyond productive work. This distinction in the uses of ‘we’ is why, when engaging with opponents, it is vital to ensure what they’re actually saying rather than what you think they’re saying. Much as I enjoy Tim Worstall’s blog, his report for the IEA is going to make no difference to those who don’t use ‘we’ like he does. Similarly, the man to which Tim is Nemesis, Richard Murphy, might as well not bother responding to Tim unless he’s going to shift his ‘we’ onto his turf. Until both sides are talking the same language, debate cannot take place.