Russell Brand giving a speech at Wall Street in New York CityJessie Essex

In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell suggests that language does not naturally evolve, but is rather an “instrument which we shape for our own purposes”. Newly created language often intensifies a cause, but “our thoughts are foolish”; thus, language is often created “ugly & inaccurate”. Accordingly, in using ugly and inaccurate language, one is predisposed to “foolish thoughts”. Orwell’s writing tends to come into clarity after its time; thus, what I want to call to our attention is ever-prevalent in political discussion today. It is not Brexit, but rather today’s language of political ideologues and activists.

In 2014, Russell Brand stated in an interview on BBC’s Newsnight that an alternative to “this corporate hegemony and the perpetuation of systematic oppression by the elite” is needed. Statements like this, packed with verbose language, brought Brand some notoriety. To some, Brand fell into an unnecessarily pretentious manner of speech, attempting to appear authoritative. By 2015′s general election, the use of the words “systematic” and “perpetuated” had effectively become partisan terms, used exclusively by the left-leaning. Brand did become the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of political pundits in 2015 as a 39-year-old who had recently discovered politics, yet this coincided with a generation of 17- and 18-year-olds discovering the dizzying emotions of the British political process too. Brand didn’t vote, then aimed to vote Green before openly backing Labour. This is a fairly typical evolution of childhood political development – Brand miraculously underwent this transformation in a week. His choice of platform: YouTube.

Orwell was also concerned with faux-simplicity and colloquialism in political language. This tendency to snap into colloquial speech is something I’m guilty of by habit, often at times of confrontation. If you grew up in an area with a dialect, you learned to deal with confrontation in dialect. This becomes a painfully noticeable defence mechanism when intellectually threatened. You can observe this in Brand; when attempting to diffuse interview situations, a thick Essex accent rears its head. The further one’s accent deviates from Queen’s English, the better it is politically weaponised to denote one’s background. ‘Dear people, I sound like you, I’m just like you because I sound like you,’ says the accent.

“In certain circles and communities today, it is far more radical to be on the right”

Phrases which allow one to take personal umbrage with someone’s views are almost exclusively the remit of the left. If one has good tools to articulate dismay they might well appear perpetually dismayed. The shouting contest that is social media serves as a great place to do this from an armchair. Conversely, the right has appropriated the ‘sexy’ political terminology of revolution for their purposes during the events of 2016. Phrases with traditionally socialist associations such as the establishment, metropolitan-elite, ‘power to the people’ and ‘unelected bureaucrats’ were mobilised. In the popular imagination, they have gained ‘rightward’ associations.

An alliance between academia and the left is nothing new, a report by the Adam Smith Institute in 2017 suggested 8 in 10 British academics are ‘liberal or left-wing’ today. The activist left has been forced to imagine a new political lexicon in the Anglosphere, a hodgepodge of words coined in fringe-academic discourse. This lexicon has not been without mockery but strengthens the new home turf of identity politics. Cultural appropriation, privilege-stacks, problematic views, ‘microaggressive’ words and actions are just some of these, all of which spiked in usage during the 2016 US Presidential election. The uptight conservatism of the right has found a new home in the educated left, perhaps best illustrated by the idea of the left as the ‘gatekeepers of language’, protecting a ‘newly-emergent neoliberal status quo’ in what can – and cannot – be said. The right is losing its identity as a conserving force and gaining an active rule through its use of language. There appears to many to be a neoliberal ideal that the left is content to conserve as though it were preferable over dismantling it. But, if language is something we largely think in, how are these new lexicons changing our thought, and thus our actions?

I don’t tend to call people ‘white males’, but having arrived in Cambridge, I was told I belong to this special taxonomy, one with a plethora of implications. The notion that someone is more privileged than yourself for such reasons might allow you to discredit someone’s speech by their identity – an easy endgame. The idea of the ‘microaggression’ could then allow you to view verbal content as a form of aggression. Thus, physically aggressive responses are within your rights to defend yourself.


Mountain View

Wrestling with tongues

Of course, one does not have to ‘punch a Nazi’ to prove your disdain for all things fascist, a by-word for ‘things I dislike’. ‘No Tories on my profile please’ will suffice to scupper any chance of meaningful dialogue between political outlooks. These quirks of language point to a mutual assumption that outlooks are unyielding, and should stay away from one another. On the right, political insult has also evolved. The use of the 16th-century term ‘cuckold’ to emasculate political adversaries is rather telling of those levying the accusation. The erosion and politicisation of masculinity is a likely cause. Its derivation, the idea of a ‘lib-cuck’, implies a mixture of political ignorance and sexual inadequacy; the implication being that a cuckold is ignorant of their wife’s infidelity.

In certain circles and communities today, it is far more radical to be on the right; certainly, this is because it has lost some of its identity as a conserving force and gained a reputation as an active one through its new language. There appears to many to be a neoliberal ideal that the left is content to conserve as though it were better than to dismantle it. When the ideals you defend have by-and-large become the institutional status-quo, one should be wary. This is true somewhere like Cambridge, where the ambient opinion and the choice of discourse within student papers appear uniformly radicalised in contrast to the wider nation. Orwell’s idea that language is something we “shape to our own purposes” is very much alive and well, and no matter our leaning, we should be vigilant to its ability to breed “foolish thought” in a postmodern time in all but name.

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