Choosing our Words Carefully
Ok, sorry this is so close to the deadline. I went to a bbq and got a bit drunk and forgot! Argh. If it doesn't quite follow, that's why. I hope it vaguely makes sense. Right: (word count, 659)
A lot of attention has been paid to the quality of policing at the G20 protests of April 1st-2nd. At first the footage of Ian Tomlinson falling over, as if having been hit, later the footage of the violent action itself, disseminated into the public consciousness. As other accounts and retrospectives in this zine will no doubt attest, the behaviour of the police was poor, and a result of more than just a few ‘rotten apples’. As time goes by more and more questions are being asked of their actions, and rightly so. Furthermore, we can only hope that the public consciousness will begin to think about the sort of society that justifies the brutality witnessed, and reject it as undesirable.
A lot of the rationale behind kettling, the deployment of riot squads, and the way the mainstream media chose to portray the protests is couched in psychology. The weapon of choice is selective, and ideologically loaded, language, with the aim of manipulating both the public response, and the self-assessment of those involved in the protests.
It is important to take a couple of minutes just to think about how our use of language can really close down debate, make entirely contingent events seem inevitable, and help policy absolve itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is no secret that words hold immense power. One of the most encouraging stories I have heard come out of the Israel/Palestine conflict in recent years is the existence of a linguistically apolitical radio station, which refuses to use terms such as ‘suicide bomber’, because of how they prime the listener to respond in a certain way, and close down any inquisitive mental response. We are predisposed towards a certain emotional reaction that is not conducive to constructive dialogue. The same is exactly true with the issue of the G20’s policing.
Whilst I don’t want to suggest that using words like ‘brutality’, ‘authoritarian’ and the like are inaccurate when describing the policing of April 1st, they remain hugely loaded ideologically. A lot of what I saw being done to protesters was quite upsetting, but it is too easy to fall into an unhelpful, and frankly stale dichotomy between ‘fascist pigs’ on the one hand, and ‘naive hippies’ or ‘violent anarchists’ on the other. As we all know, the word ‘anarchist’ has been loaded with negative –not to mention inaccurate- connotations by the mainstream media and our political leaders. It is used to denote directionless, obstinate violence. Even worse, people on the moderate left have been sucked into using this word -and politicised tool- in opposition to themselves; the aim being to legitimise their own standpoint. Of course, this attempts to make illegitimate a wholly legitimate ideology, because it serves the interests of the police, and those in the political system to do so.
The same is entirely true of how we consider the police. Even without resorting to words like ‘the pigs’, ‘brutality’ or ‘fascist’, we are in danger of closing down useful discussion by using blanket terms. Surely it is most helpful to facilitate inclusive dialogue about how best to resolve inappropriate police behaviour, rather than alienate sections of society by referring to such behaviour as perpetrated ‘by the police’. There were at least a few police at the protests who clearly sympathised with us, and thought the act of kettling wasn’t fair or appropriate. By making sweeping accusations of brutality, which may apply to many, even the majority, we alienate those officers not culpable of such an offence, and predispose them to stand as a united front with those against whom the accusation does legitimately stand.
The solution is to be specific, and use words intelligently. It does nothing to dilute the communication of our collective anger by using less ideologically charged, and more specific terms. I think it does quite the opposite, in fact. Our message can only be more powerful if it engages others in discussion, rather than shutting intelligent discussion down before we have even finished speaking.