Blog #37 – Lopsided Language


Loaded Language

Language is a political tool. That’s generally recognized.  What speakers mean when they use words like “freedom,” “security,” “justice,” or “democracy” says a great deal about where they stand politically, and such terms are deliberately used for their political effect. It may not be immediately apparent on which side of what argument the users stand, but it is obvious that the meaning is controversial and needs to be looked into.

Other terms that sound good are already clearly identified with a particular cause, and are open about it. If someone says “affirmative action,” or stresses “balancing budgets,” or “job creators,” or “all life is sacred,” we are immediately on notice that, while they sound good, there is a political position being put forward, an argument being made that requires reflection and proper contextualization. They are used as propaganda. Propaganda includes the artful choice of words to give a persuasive political message; those in the business make no bones about why they use some words and not others

More insidious, however, is when words are used that have an apparent obvious and noncontroversial meaning, that are customarily taken at face value and without refection, that are not reacted to as propaganda, but yet are just as much propaganda as the more obvious ones. And this often happens, not by what meaning is accepted for the words, but what meaning is avoided, suppressed distorted. These are words tacitly accepted as either good or bad, as non-controversial with an implicitly accepted meaning, that if they were seen as politically serving one purpose or another, would be the subject of debate. They are words like “consensus”, “growth,” “innovation,” “sustainable,” “resilience.” Some have indeed been subject to quite controversial scrutiny: “tolerance,” for instance, or “democracy“, on “inclusive.”  But others, such as those examined here, are generally used without particular attention being paid to their political implications, and operate, in a way subliminally, below the threshold of conscious examination,[1] to buttress a particular political position or world view, generally that of the establishment.

Take the words “poverty” and “inequality.” Which is the problem, poverty or inequality? Well, both, of course. But we have had a “War on Poverty” substantially funded at the national level and implemented in cities throughout the land, but when a candidate for Mayor of New York City makes a call to reduce inequality a key part of his platform, he is attacked as being “divisive,” and tea party Republicans denounce advocates of social welfare measures as fomenting a “class war” in the country. The difference in the phrases is telling. It is acceptable to declare “war on poverty,” because no-one is being attacked, Studies of how to wage it focus on the poor, their social capital or lack of it, the poor need education, contacts with middle-class folk and their job opportunities and their moral customs, maybe child care are health care or even jobs, for which of course they need the training. All may be true, and even helpful if seriously addressed. But the rich are not involved, certainly not seen as part of the problem, part of the causes of poverty. We need to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but certainly not by measures that reduce the wealth of the poor, according to the dominant thinking and language.

Yet inequality has a certain resonances, enough to be of concern to the establishment. Not many go so far as Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, who even accepts and justifies it, arguing it shouldn’t have such a bad rap. Bizarrely, he argues that inequality is good for the poor:

“Other cities have much lower inequality levels,” Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Marc LaVorgna, said, citing Detroit and Camden, N.J. “Are those better places for low-income families to live? Or would they be better off if they had more wealthy people, and a larger income gap,”

Or, to quote Tony Auth’s cartoon, what Bloomberg might say:

“As not what you can do for equality. Ask what inequality can do for you.”

But even Paul Krugman, an energetic defender of the interests of the poor, feels forced to argue that, after all.  Helping the poor will help everybody, because what they will buy with increased incomes will be goods sold by to them by the rich and thus rebounding to the benefit of rich as well as of poor. And the even those not willing to go so far, and presenting impressive documentation on the extent of the growing inequality and its injustice, focus their arguments on the difficulties that the poor face, with some attention to the benefits to the rich, but rather little on how those benefits to the rich in fact are founded on the poverty of the poor. Only died-in-the-wool Marxists seem today to have picked up on the implications of concepts such as surplus value, which suggests that the profits of businesses and the wealth of their owners is directly related to how little they can pay the workers that produce what they sell.  There are words whose usage is tabooed, as well as words in lopsided usage.

A War on Inequality threatens the rich, a War on Poverty does not. “Poverty” is an acceptable term in mainstream discourse; Inequality rather slips to the side.

There is a political logic in this pattern of word usage. The ability of the 1% to maintain their position, both in politics and in the economy, rests not only on their physical power but also, and perhaps more and more, on their ability to contain the opposition of the governed, of the poor and of the middle “class” as well. Jürgen Habermas wrote of the Legitimation Crisis, the need of those on top to justify their positions to those below. This is accomplished in part by the handling of words, of language. Specifically, a major part of their argument is that there is a commonality of interest, not a conflict, between rich and poor. How each does is independent of how the other does; the poor may deserve more, indeed it can be recognized  that they do and that some level of charity and fairness must be shown them, but not at the expense of the rich or their practices. The poor must be helped to change; the rich need not do so.  The reality of a conflict of interest must be suppressed, and indeed is better not even let surface, and the lopsided use of words having a conventionally established meaning bottling up any incentive to challenge that meaning is a large part of the process.

Take other language. “Inclusion” and “exclusion” are words frequently used in policy discussions by political leaders, researchers, journalists, talking heads. “Inclusion” of course is a good thing, devoutly to be wished; to be excluded is undesirable. Right? But note the passive voice, which reads quite naturally – yet it already conceals the agency of the excluders in the exclusion. The focus is on those who are excluded, not on those who do the exclusion. They are not doing so well because of their characteristics: they lack education, skills, maybe morals, etc. They are overcrowded in insecure, unsupportive neighborhoods; they are not included in healthy middle class or better ones, and should be. The social city program of the European Union is addressed to deal with the problem, teaching those in such neighborhoods how to behave, how to improve themselves, so that they will be more acceptable in better communities. That the better communities in fact achieve their quality in part by their ability to exclude, that pubic actions support the “two cities” phenomenon partly be looking only at one of the cities, that of the poor, without analyzing the functioning of the other, of the better off – that’s a question the term “inclusion” might be thought logically to raise, but it’s conventional and overwhelmingly accepted usage does not raise, It is a lopsided usage, but the prevalent one.[2]

And there are terms whose conventionally and overwhelmingly accepted usage simply smothers any potential critical content. Terms such as “tolerance”, “diversity,” “sustainability,” all have important and good meanings, consistent with the achievement of social justice. But they can unexamined, be co-opted and used for their opposite. Tolerance can mean acceptance of racism, homophobia, arrogance, chauvinism. Diversity can be used to support the presence of the poor in all neighborhoods, as contributing to a desired diversity, without questioning the existence of poverty or the harm it can do to those at the bottom, as in gentrification which increased diversity but displaces the poor. Not everything should be sustained; on its face, sustainability almost calls for a continuation of the social status quo, usually less by aiming to do so as by never reaching the question. Such concepts are two or many sided; a lopsided usage implicitly supports existing social relations.

Of course, ultimately, we are all in it together, ultimately it is indeed to everyone benefit that all of us should be included and treated fairly in one world, one united city, one society in which each is tolerant of all other, all enjoy the benefits of diversity. But pretending, deliberately or by omission, that we are already there defeats the purpose of getting there. If we’re already there, no reason to change anything to get there. The very use of the word “we” in sentences such as the above is a tip-off to the lopsided understandings ordinary words can be given. “We” are a very disparate group of people; some of us are already tolerant and enjoy diversity and it’s to “”everyone’s” benefit that “we” act in solidarity with each other. But “we” also excludes a lot of people whose interests today are very different from each other, whatever they may ultimately” be. We can’t all be winner. If there are winners there must be losers. To try to make all of us winners while the game continues to make winners and losers won’t work.

“We,” as it’s most generally used,[3] should actually mean “some people” – a wag once suggested it should only be used when it means “me and my friends.” Lopsided meanings given to such words, many words, which conceal alternate meanings and wash out contradictions and conflicts among groups and interests, get in the way of changing things so that “we” could actually mean “all of us,” not just some of us. Straightening out the lopsided uses of language would be a big help.


[1] Herbert Marcuse has a long riff on the subject of language, pushing it further to argue that the very structure of grammatical laws has such political implications. See One-Dimensional Man, Chapter 4.

[2] A recent report to URBACT II, May 2013, Against Divided Cities In Europe, brought to my attention by Ivan Tosics of Hungary, is a welcome exception , calling explicitly in 0065amining “divided cities” for “planning and interventions across the whole city (which includes rich areas.)” p. 6

[3] A detailed example is at Blog 35, “Watch your Language, Krugman,” at http://www.pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

One thought on “Blog #37 – Lopsided Language

  1. By my reading of current events, we are not there yet. And by there, I believe you mean Western sociological standards of civilization. And it appears that we are not in this together. Certain religions have no intention of assimilation into Western values or culture. While diversity is a good thing, there are standards that remain the basis for Western civilization. Tolerance is a two way street – if Western civilization is tolerant of Eastern beliefs and have welcomed them into our cities, Eastern civilization must also accept our sociological standards and accept tolerance of our beliefs.

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