But Words Will Never Hurt Me

When dictatorial thugs oppress their people in far-flung parts of the world, our government’s response is pretty dependable. Nine times out of ten we will ignore it. For the sake of a beleaguered minority who still read the papers and/or give a shit about torture, corruption, and human rights, a harshly worded statement of condemnation will be issued, replete with more caveats and qualifiers than there are bullet holes in the Middle East ‘Road Map’. We turn apologist for some pretty egregious regimes in the interest of realpolitik pure and simple. The language is the real kicker though. Ever noticed how Mahmoud Abbas is the Fatah ‘moderate’ – never the corrupted patsy that the landslide election of Hamas made him – or how one generation’s ‘strongman’ becomes the next generation’s ‘terrorist’ at the drop of a hat?

Words are not always simply the accident of history. Etymology has been hijacked by ideology. As soon as language jumps into bed with politics it becomes propaganda. One of the greatest propaganda victories of Western capitalist ‘liberal democracies’ has been convincing us that the word ‘propaganda’ does not apply to them. Yes, we have ‘spin’, but propaganda is something only communists and fascists do. We have a free and independent media. Right?

You might see where I’m going with this, and to pre-empt you, of course the Murdochs of this world are able to set agendas and frame discourse. But most people, I think, are wise to this. When the Sun switches from Tory to Labour and back again it is obvious who is ‘in’, and who is ‘out’.

I would argue that it is the subtler, and therefore more insidious culture of pro-Capitalist semantics and semiotics that have the real power. They underpin pretty much everything the mainstream media writes and broadcasts. Perhaps hyper-critical of New Labour, perhaps more amenable to the Conservatives, it nonetheless never questions the underlying framework; that capitalism – and all its cultural, economic and social connotations – is the only legitimate way of structuring society.

The most important thing to ask ourselves, all the time, is how events relate to each other. Categorising things discreetly is only of limited use: global warming is a product of man’s hubris (and it is still mostly men who pull the levers), exacerbated by capitalism’s inherent contradictions. Continual growth on a planet with very finite resources is not possible; poverty is exacerbated by global warming (indirect capitalism) and by deliberately unequal wealth relations in which the global North’s riches are predicated on the exploitation of the South. I could go on.

The coverage of the Ratcliffe on Soar (coal power station) protests on October 17th-18th, 2009, is a typical example of the words and pictures chosen serving the underlying capitalist agenda. The surface-level purpose of articles and TV reports on this protest were to inform the public about what happened, who was involved, and why. But the language and pictures give away the lower, unspoken agenda.

The media exists to sell itself. It is a business like any other, and as such needs to maximise profits. The best way to do this (in terms of reporting content) is to focus on the most evocative element of any story. Hence, all the pictures on the BBC, Guardian, Independent, and Times webpages were of angry (and even better, blood soaked) protesters fighting with police. The language, almost across the board, tended to reflect these images. The peaceful demonstration was all but ignored –and there was a significant peaceful section. I was part of it- and the protest was talked about like a pitched battle between ‘protesters’ and ‘police officers’, as if the only reason people had showed up was to start a fight. The Times spoke of a ‘day of clashes’. The Guardian went one better with the headline ‘Protesters and police in violent clashes’. Only the Independent had enough column space for more than a single throw-away sentence about why the protest was happening. E.ON, the company running the power station, was given ample room to explain how green it is, while the police were quoted expressing their disappointment that protesters ‘used force’.

I leave you with one final remark on what the language reveals, should you choose to dig deep enough. In the less sensationalist and vitriolic commentary, the standard response to the protest was rolled out: that the methods obscured the message. I find it interesting how, during Powershift, the UK Youth Climate Coalition event at the start of October, the methods – mass dancing in Parliament Square, and other fluffy visual displays – were deemed naïve and ineffectual by the same media that denounced the direct action of Ratcliffe as a conflict fuelled by the bloodlust of violent hardliners.

As a mouthpiece for the same profit interests that run our governments, it is hardly surprising that protest is constantly marginalized by the media as either violent or naïve; in either case, nothing that we should waste precious seconds thinking about. So for the next time, remember the politics behind the protest. Remember that words can be weapons.

Originally published in the Boar, on October 27th, 2009.

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