Tony Judt on linguistic subterfuges practised in Europe and America.
In America the misuse of language is usually cultural rather than political. People will accuse Obama of being a socialist. Italians would say magari – if only. However, no one takes this very seriously. What we have instead in the US is cultural communities policing what can and can’t be said, and that shapes how we define difference. The idea is that you can’t have an elite, since elitism is undemocratic and unegalitarian. Therefore, you always make the point that people are in some important way the same. If they are badly disabled like me, they are ‘differently abled’, which I find very amusing. It is not a ‘different’ ability: it is no ability. But since it’s politically uncomfortable to distinguish between people who can do things and people who can’t, the latter are described as separate but equal. There are numerous things wrong with this: first, it is lousy language; second, it creates the illusion of sameness or achievement in its absence; third, it conceals the effects of real power and capacity, real wealth and influence. You describe everyone as having the same chances when actually some people have more chances than others. And with this cheating language of equality deep inequality is allowed to happen much more easily.
In Britain the most striking abuse of language is the redefinition of private, for-profit economic activities as services provided by the state. A concrete example is the way private entrepreneurs were given the right to run old people’s homes. However, no one wants to spell that out, which is why they are described as ‘delivering’ the service, as if they were the milkman bringing milk to old people. It prevents people from fully grasping that the state has handed over its mandate of responsibility to a private actor, whose motivation is to provide the cheapest possible service and make the most money.
In France something else is happening, a kind of abusive reworking of republicanism. The old French ideal of egalitarian republicanism with no distinctions, no compromise with religion or localism, with everyone having the same opportunities, speaking the same language, living in the same France – an ideal that was invented in the late 18th century as a way to make a radical break with the Ancien Régime – is now used to paper over the disadvantages of young people, particularly if they are black or brown, from the suburbs or North Africa. The old egalitarian language has been transfigured into saying we all have the same opportunities, we are all equal, we will not talk about the fact that you are female and brown, or allow you to dress differently, because that would not be republican. This subterfuge enables very illiberal behaviour in the name of a ‘liberal ideal’.
Tony Judt‘s latest book is Ill Fares the Land. This is an excerpt from an interview that appeared in the last issue of the London Review of Books.
2 thoughts on “On the abuse of language”
We do not only write and speak with language; we read, listen and–most of all–THINK in it. That is why modern media and the American-style abuse of it (only the worst of many examples) is the prime tool of dumbing-down, or rather numbing-down, people’s thought processes. Even the most well thought-out and presented TV programme, lasting a mere 6 minutes between each 4-minute commercial break, is so structured as to prevent watchers from being able to construct a sequence of thoughts, let alone words and sentences, so critical thought is virtually out of the question.