Wednesday 2 October 2019

It's not just words - it's the context

In responding to complaints about the language he and his team have been using, the PM chose to concentrate on justifying the use of particular words.  His response to that more limited issue was not at all unreasonable – words like ‘traitor’, ‘betrayal', and ‘surrender’ have indeed been common political currency on all sides for a very long time.  The response does, though, miss the point, which is more to do with context than actual words.
When Henry II asked, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, the problem wasn’t with the description of the Archbishop as being ‘turbulent’; it was with the ‘will no one rid me’ part of the sentence.  The adjective, in itself, could be interpreted as mere banter, just like the words which Johnson has been using.  But when placed into a context where the person described is also referred to as needing to be ‘got rid of’, (and where it is said in the hearing of individuals willing to carry out the getting rid of) the context makes the whole much more threatening.  It has the effect of legitimising (in their own minds at least) the actions of those believing that they are doing what the king wants them to do, even if they haven't directly been tasked with murder.
That is precisely the problem with Johnson’s language.  In a context where people are receiving death threats, and his team are openly suggesting that the way to stop the threats is for those receiving them to knuckle down and obey those making the threats, continuing to describe those receiving the threats as unpatriotic traitors amounts to legitimising both the threats and those making them.  Allowing him to justify the use of particular metaphors by referring to past use of the same words is ignoring context – and letting him off the hook for an utterly irresponsible approach to public debate.

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