‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.’
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946
How do words enter the political vocabulary and how do they shape our understanding of an issue and shift our behaviour? If George Orwell is right, could bad usage of language corrupt our thoughts and prevent political regeneration? Could vague usages of words and metaphors distract us from the real issues and hide the problems?
In understanding where common policy terms originate from and how they diffuse into wider usage, Dr Andrew Clifton, a lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Northumbria University, kicked off the ‘Political Tipping Points’ session with an interesting account of how ‘social exclusion’ as a term has entered the vocabulary of political elites. The term diffused from Europeanization. ‘Social exclusion’ is the opposite of ‘social inclusion’ which was written into the Maastricht Treaty as an objective of the European Structural Funds. Later, it gained prominence with the New Labour government under Tony Blair who launched a series of policy initiatives which created the tipping point for ‘social exclusion’ to enter the political and sociological conversation in the United Kingdom. The term had an organizational and implementation impact as it led to the establishment of an interdepartmental social exclusion unit. Yet, while discursive choices might impact on policy and organizational changes, does this translate to positive policy outcome?
Dr Clifton concluded that while the usage of ‘social exclusion’ generates wider engagement, it has a paradoxical effect of creating derision and cynicism to the wider public. Personally, I think that while ‘social exclusion’ certainly calls up a mental image and may not be guilty of fancy phraseology in Orwellian sense as such, I find its subjectivity almost patronizing. It makes a judgement call on who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’ of what is a normative frame of societal standards set by the policy-makers rather than the citizens themselves. The usage of such terms could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies: in labelling certain individuals as being ‘socially excluded’, this behaviour could accentuate their sense of being excluded and thus defeats the purpose of trying to ‘include’ them.