When a word is taken away from us, like ‘refugee’ and replaced by ‘illegal migrant’, we may not notice. Why do we allow others to choose our words? How can a person align him- or herself with events and become an influencer able to say the words we want and choose the language our followers will use?
In Australia, the means of political control include reason, persuasion and force. The notion that language is the only ingredient for achieving control does not bear close examination. Having the ‘right’ words is not enough. The nature of the actor, the issue, the beliefs, the audience, the political event, the public spectacle and other speakers, all matter too. Philosophers have proposed certain ways to think and behave using written and spoken language.
Descartes advocated analysing events by attributing effects to causation by certain subjects. In the physical sciences, objects change motion due to contact with a wielded force. Social and economic action often has less visible causation, but it is accepted as the basis of political action because it is regarded as ‘reasonable’. There is no ‘truth’ any more. Post modern discourse accepts different versions of truth if they are declared confidently and emotionally.
Heidegger’s approach was more subjective, looking for potential utility and advantage from existing phenomena. Careful analysis and a weight of evidence is used to justify political action.
Darwin’s theory explained changes in living things with time, but it was incorrectly assumed that survival and failure in the social milieu was predetermined by ‘fitness’, allowing brute force and callous disregard to overcome ethical human values.
In a democratic society an individual can seek support for ideas by joining with others to exercise political power. In a totalitarian society, as described by Arendt, power is concentrated under the control of a dictator, with an arbitrary ideology imposed on fearful masses, rendering them individually superfluous. Power can be achieved by surrendering one’s individuality to a party. Tyrannical leaders, to bolster their power, declare certain identities as reprehensible and worthy of punishment.
Foucault observed that the masses enjoyed it when sovereigns punished outgroups, by bullying, torture and even public executions. Punishment seemed to be a concomitant of power, as if the cost of worthiness was excoriation of unworthiness. Leaders may be elevated on a platform suppressing the beliefs of ordinary folk.
The process of public discourse was observed by Derrida to respond to ideas in binary opposition, as if opposition is a core political reflex. This denied the processes of compromise and synthesis extolled by Hegel.
If we didn’t already have a process for screening language used in public, we would have to invent one. Public discourse is a turmoil in which ideas inspire, beliefs are aired, vocabularies evolve, opponents are isolated and influence has complex contingencies. The churn of discourse allows ideas to be created, discussed and modified. It is a process of communication towards agreement and protest. It can hear contributions without wealth, race or creed.
The public discourse has banalities and calls to arms like ‘Make America Great Again’ that attract followers because they are emotive. Emotion can mobilise humans to defend their interests.
There is safety that public fame often has torturous routes. Ambitious players may be unable to navigate their way to prominence. Those who succeed are likely to have endured humbling losses at some stage and had their fondest ambitions rejected. Our process rewards resilience and honesty, with freedom from corruption.
It seems that the repressive world of Newspeak described by Orwell is only a short step away, with language rules that suppress happiness and prevent opposition. Fortunately it isn’t commonplace yet and the language belongs to all of us. Rule of vocabulary with words deliberately constructed for political purposes is not yet absolute, political correctness and woke movements notwithstanding. The takeover of sport and entertainment by the spectacle, as described by Debord. is regrettable.
The power of words cannot be exercised independently of political processes but in some places the personal respect inherent in free speech is being challenged. The alternatives to free speech vest control in others. My posts on philosophical topics and reviews of my novels are in my blog: martinknox.com
Disciplining a minority could be motivated to validate an authority.
Philosopher Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984) in his book Discipline and Punish described punishment of offenders as changing from brutality done before a mob, which was both a deterrent and demonstration of tyrannical rule. Treatment of prisoners by brutal public spectacle was replaced by Bentham’s panopticon design (one was built at Port Arthur in 1858) which applied principles of surveillance, normalisation and evaluation to correction. Prisoners were subjected to silent, lonely psychological torture. Foucault’s thesis is that discipline methods reflected the wishes of the mob to be firmly ruled, but is that still true today?
Punishment has fewer adherents today and the public may be less vindictive. Is today’s treatment of prisoners sufficiently humane to discipline them for more positive roles? Hopefully suspended sentences, non-custodial detention, bonds, education, counselling, kindness and other methods are being used for more empathetic treatment. On the other hand, refusal by the majority to respect Indigenous people, by moving Australia Day from January 26th, also known as Invasion Day, to a less provocative day, could indicate little kindness in the general public. Disciplining of people humanely into the Australian culture may not be a reality for many years.
My novel The Grass is Always Browner is speculative fiction about Australia’s distant future.