Political Language And Why The Words We Use Matter

In which I talk about dragons and fascists.

At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate.  Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.

Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.

There are numerous causes.  Hate-filled demagogues.  The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered.  The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.

But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society.  (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)

And key to that normalisation is the use of words.

When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision.  I’d be using some familiar tropes.  Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.

As an author, this created problems for me.  These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices.  In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.

So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.

That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names.  Dragons were Fabulous Beasts.  Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology.  And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.

Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say.  It seemed to work.  The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.

It’s an important lesson.  Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions.  They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.

This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.

The term Alt-Right is key.  It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.

The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right[2][3][4] fringe hate groups.”

Nazis like Hitler.  Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.

Does Alt-Right make you think of that?  No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.

Don’t use Alt-Right.  You’re helping them win.  You, you and you.  And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.

Words are not about what they mean.  They’re about what they make you feel.

The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it.  That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority.  It allows them to terrorise women – as a right.  To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder.  One word.  Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are.  They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles.  It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.

Revenge Porn.  We all know what that is, right?  It’s there in those two words.  Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again).  Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes?  ‘Arousal’.

Except it’s Domestic Violence.  The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man.  Not so kinky now, is it?  Not so much arousal.

Stop calling it Revenge Porn.  Call it Domestic Violence.  Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.

This goes much wider and deeper.

People used to fighting political battles understand each other.  They use a shared language, packed with technical terms.  And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.

Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.

We know what antisemitism is.  But we don’t feel it, do we?  Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.

Many of us know what misogyny is.  It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US.  Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way.  Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.

Words matter.  All writers know that.  But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in.  George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.

The Grenfell Tower Blaze And The End Of Politics As We Know It

Everything has changed.  That’s how it feels in London right now, not a million miles away from the tower block catastrophe that has horrified the world.  I’ve never experienced such rage against politicians, from all parties.

This disaster should never have happened.

In an age of tragedies, what happened at Grenfell Tower has hit home in a visceral way.  The death count continues to rise – it could reach 150 – but the shock lies in the way those people died.  Grenfell resonates as a symbol of the malaise that grips the 21st century world.  Where money counts more than human beings.  Where the people we elevate to guide and protect us are incompetent, venal, or simply not up to the job, however well-intentioned.  Where it’s possible to make decisions without caring about the consequences.  This is the age of the shrug and move on.

No longer.  Prime Minister Theresa May – who seems to have a problem with empathy – was led away from a crowd of angry residents by her bodyguards. But so was London Mayor Sadiq Khan from the rival Labour Party.  And new Labour MP for Grenfell’s Kensington constituency, Emma Dent Coad , was attacked by residents for trying to blame the Conservatives when it emerged that as a councillor she sat on the committee which scrutinised the inferior work on the tower block that led to the fire.

You can hear it on the tube, in the pubs, everywhere you go.  People have had enough.  After the Brexit referendum, the Scottish referendum, years of austerity, and multiple elections, there’s a growing feeling that politicians are part of the problem not the solution.  Disrupting lives for ideological reasons, throwing the country into chaos for no obvious reward, dividing communities and families and friends, and leaving a trail of misery in their wake. Hobbyists who love the cut and thrust of the grand game while everyone else pays the price.  All parties, all politicians.  No one escapes the judgment.

Something has to change.  And if this mood continues on the streets of Britain, it will change, and fast.

 

The World Is Better Than You Think

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Deep breath.  Look around.

Famine is being eliminated. In 2014, 850 million suffered from malnutrition, the lowest figure on record.  Meanwhile, 2.1 billion were overweight.  In 1918, Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million in a year, compared to the 40 million who died in WWI.  But in 2014, the Ebola outbreak – “the most severe public health emergency in modern times”, according to the World Health Organisation – was stopped at 11,000 deaths.  In the 20th century, human violence accounted for 5% of all deaths.  In the 21st century, it’s 1%.  In 2012 56 million people died, but war caused only 120,000 of those deaths.

All these figures are quoted from Yuval Noah Harari’s very highly-recommended book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow (review coming soon to this site).

Those historical harbingers of the apocalypse, war, famine and pestilence, are still far too widespread, but every indicator is improving, and here in 2016, improving rapidly.

Some people out there see an advantage in proclaiming how terrible things are, that all around we have only decline and degradation and that things were always so much better in the past.  Don’t listen to them.

We’re on the cusp of a golden age.

The innovations and advancements created by clever people – the ‘elite’, I suppose – are improving every aspect of our life.  Two days ago, a team at MiT took us a step closer to unlimited clean energy.  Breakthroughs in cancer treatment are coming so fast it’s hard to keep track of them.  Advances in food production techniques, and in health, and the consistently falling global poverty levels will push those Four Horsemen to the fringes.

But the danger now is that we sit back and wait for this new dawn to arrive.  That we foolishly think that everyone wants this better time that’s coming.  It’s going to be great, why wouldn’t they?

No.  Barriers lie everywhere.  Malign forces are working hard to ensure this golden age never comes about, people, and ideologies, who will find no place for themselves in this better world.

Putin has spoken publicly about how his plans for Russia are centred around stopping liberal western values in their tracks – he wants his growing empire to be a bastion of conservatism – and we’ve already seen how the prospect of a third world war is looming.  The global death cult ISIS may be suffering a set-back on its territory in Mosul, but it’s ideology won’t easily be destroyed and it’s committed to a medieval world-view.

And then there are the domestic forces that want to hold everything back – in the US and UK, in France, Germany and across the West, not just the people who are afraid of change, and they are many, but those whose power bases and belief systems are firmly rooted in the 20th century.

If you look at the electoral battles taking place, it’s easy to think this is politics as usual.  Same old parties, same old faces.  It’s not.  What we are now living through is an epochal battle.

This was all predicted in one of my favourite books of the last decade, The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin.  The former IBM staffer talked about the tech age back in 1978 in his book The Wired Society, and in this later work he looks at how the world will be changed by technology throughout this century.  But he insisted that it wouldn’t be plain sailing.  He described this process as a river, which plunges into a narrow ravine and becomes a hell of white water, before broadening out into a peaceful drift into a pleasant future.

We’re in that ravine now, and the turbulence is going to be great.  But if we want to come out the other side, we all have to work together to oppose those who’d rather see the whole raft sink.

Left and Right was a good way of defining the political struggle of the last century.  No longer.  Now, all over the West, party barriers are being transcended.

The true political battle of the 21st century is the past versus the future.  You have Left and Right on both sides, one tribe looking back to a perceived golden age, one looking forward, with vested interests everywhere tugging at sleeves.

There’s no room for sitting on the fence.  Our choice now is to stand up, argue, vote for the person or party that’s at least vaguely heading for the destination you want, even if they’re not your perfect choice.  (As an aside, there are no perfect choices in politics.)

I’m looking to the future – that’s where the world I want to live in exists.  You?

 

Politics, Events And The Writer’s Nightmare

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The EU Referendum seems to have unleashed some kind of collective madness in the UK.

I’ve been planning to write about the fallout for a few days. But every time I sit down, the situation changes. By the day, by the hour, sometimes even every five minutes.

Leave voters’ buyers remorse. Will-they-won’t-they trigger Article 50 and start the uncoupling process. The devastating racist attacks on communities across the UK. The implosion of the Labour Party. The Conservative leadership campaign. Michael Gove’s Shakespearean act of treachery. Boris Johnson’s subsequent decision not to stand as leader, the thing he’s been working towards all his life and which he blew up the country to achieve. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s hint that a new centrist party could be formed with Labour moderates.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to it.

No point putting finger to keyboard and then it all being obsolete the second I press publish.

This may well be one of Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping points – everything always stays the same until the moment everything changes. We’ve seen it happen in business and international affairs and the media. It’s all part of that 21st Century disruption.

This is a headache if you’re writing fiction. You want your work to resonate with the world around you. But the book publishing schedule – or the TV production schedule – entails a year, sometimes two, between writing and publication. When the world is as it is at the moment, the chances are some of what you do is already out of date by the time the book hits the shelves. That diminishes its power.

My colleagues writing SF have been wrestling with the rapid changes in technology for a while (and my US editor remarked that one of my books was three waves of tech out of date between UK publication and US). But I certainly wouldn’t like to be a commenter for the news print media.

*rips up fifth column of the day*

It’s exhausting. I want a break. I want all of us to start moving forward again instead of thrashing around in the whirlpool.

Maybe tomorrow.

The Aliens Have Won

SF writer Charlie Stross has an excellent analysis of why so many people now feel politically powerless.

He asks why is the world so clearly going wrong and why can’t anyone fix it. His proposal is that the problem can be laid at the door of corporations, which are hive organisms “constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)”

Potentially immortal, they exist mainly in the present, with little regard for the past or the long-term future, and are essentially sociopathic forms, he says. Utilising Governments and the media to achieve their ends, they have spread across the globe. And he concludes: “We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals… In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.”

Which certainly captures a huge part of the depersonalisation of the 21C world. There is another side, though, which concerns the defence of the human race against the alien invaders. The only people who can stop these conquerors are not eggheads with whiteboards or staunch, plucky workers, but politicians.

One of the central beliefs of politics is that politicians always fight the campaign of two elections ago – eight to ten years. They’re looking back to what worked and what didn’t. Their beliefs are shaped during their formative years and rarely change. But with the rapid and accelerating social and technological change of the last decade, eight years ago might as well be fifty. We essentially have 20th century people trying to fight 21st century problems.

The other issue is the decline of the political party system. Before the 1980s, political parties were mass membership organisations, numbering in some cases well over a million members. Now the main parties claim a tiny fraction of that number – and this is true across the west.

In the UK (and in many other countries), candidates are chosen from the party membership. As numbers decline, so does the talent base. Most parties are now down to a rump of unrepresentative activists, who may be decent-hearted and fuelled by a belief in their principles, but are not a deep source of the kinds of talent we need in the 21C.

So the aliens have indeed taken over, and our defenders simply aren’t up to the job of organising the resistance. Meanwhile, we face some of the worst problems ever to afflict the human race. As Charlie points out, that’s not the end of the debate, it’s the beginning…

The Meaning Of The 21st Century

Further to recent discussions, I wanted to flag up a book – The Meaning of the 21st Century: a vital blue print for ensuring our future by James Martin – which raises many of the big issues facing us, the great opportunities technology can bring, and then ties it all up in a nice, neat bundle.

Martin is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author for The Wired Society which was prescient about much of today’s world. In this one, he interviews lots of experts across a range of disciplines and gives a powerfully-stated overview, which is hard to get in such a complex world.

It’s a popular science book, and easily understood, so all you uber-scientists don’t come here complaining that he’s not written it at a thesis level. Worth checking out for anyone interested in life in general, science and politics.

Time For A New Politics

For most of my adult life I’ve been involved in various forms of campaigning across a variety of issues. I’ve worked with politicians at all levels, and advised and consulted. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that the politicians we have are part of the problem, not the solution. We face the greatest crises – multiple crises – we have ever encountered, and the vast majority of MPs are simply not up to the job of tackling those great problems.

For the last few weeks I’ve only sniped and snarked about this across Facebook and Twitter. But I’m starting to wonder if we have to accept this incompetence and inadequacy with the usual British stoicism or if there’s something we can do about it.

While I ponder on what can be done, I am happy to support this initiative by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, a charitable foundation. It’s a small step, but the more people speak up, the more those at the top can be encouraged to listen. Watch the video, then vote for whatever you believe in.

New Blog At Red Room

I’m starting to blog about politics, environmental issues, social issues and some of my other interests at Red Room, which is a new community for writers and readers.

This site will continue with its usual eclectic approach to my writing and interests in the fields of science, mysticism, mythology, publishing in general, and other weird stuff. I thought it best not to infect this site with my occasional spittle-firing rants.

Where’s Jed Bartlett When You Need Him?

It’s time for a confession: I am an addict. It’s a secret shame that at times has seen me ostracised from my family, left alone at the bar and harangued in public. The monkey on my back is not sex, drugs or booze, it’s politics. My stimulant of choice would be of the US kind, though I can indulge myself at great length with the UK national, local and regional brands, plus the Euro Parliament.

In times of withdrawal, I have been known to indulge in French, German, Italian and even Venezuelan, Mexican and Bolivian – a mark of abject disgrace to my nearest and dearest.

Catch me on a high and I will supply you with names and probably voting figures from obscure US senatorial races of the last thirty years.

You really don’t want to come anywhere near me now, do you?

I’m one of those people who happens to think politics is everything in life. If you don’t keep an eye on the bastards who decide they’re fit to run things, they’ll go out of their way to screw up your life when you’re not looking. It might be something as simple as banning your favourite film in a knee-jerk response to some tabloid outcry, or it might be about sending your loved ones off to die in some meaningless war.

There’s a rush to it, too, beyond the self-defence factor. Battles of wills, power struggles, egos crashing and burning – it’s a lovely sight. There’s also a hint of cruelty in my delight. I think there’s something in the pathology of people who wish to become leading politicians that reveals an inner life which should never be allowed the reins of power. Thankfully, they all come falling down sooner or later.

This week I have been enjoying the US midterm elections, up until the small hours on Tuesday night and then watching CNN and Fox for days after until George Allen finally realised it really was all going to hell in a handcart yesterday. (Heaven for the majority.)

I take simple but vicious pleasure in the humbling of Bush, the dismissing of Rumsfeld and hopefully the slow torture of Cheney. Finally the Democrats are back in control of both houses – now let’s hope something can be done in the Middle East. But I won’t be holding my breath.

You stopped reading three paragraphs back, didn’t you? See, nobody understands. Next time I’m doing a detailed analysis of the Venezuelan elections. That should really bring the punters in…

(This one cross-posted from LJ and MySpace)