Sunday, 6 March 2011

Debating language

The war over words which broke out this week between the political parties has suddenly increased in intensity.

Reading Post reports on an exchange of emails between the three party leaders stemming from a remark which a leading Labour representative was forced to withdraw during the council debate.

Cllr Pete Ruhemann called his opponent a 'quisling' - in reference to the Norweigan wartime leader who submitted his nation to Germany. He stated this was a reference to apparent betrayal of principles and cited his own family history as a defence that he would never deliberately implicate associations with Nazi ideals, claiming it would be 'repugnant and unacceptable' to make light of historical atrocities in this way.

And in a comment on this site Labour's Cllr John Ennis appeared to back this up this line of reasoning with a suggestion that who you are matters more than what you say - he's obviously a bit miffed he doesn't know who writes this blog!

However, RCRE chair Rajinder Sophal started off the matter by pointing out that prejudice is colour-blind - meaning who you are and where you come from is irrelevant when placed against your behaviour.

For Gideon Mack the matter is also more about effect than intent.

As he says, calling a Labour MP a 'muppet' was intentionally negative and that the use of 'Is it because I is black?' was actually race-based, so despite it not being the most serious offence and irrespective whether or not it was accidental this conjunction still constitutes unacceptable racial prejudice.

Writing on his own blog the straight-talking Cllr Swaine seems to concede some wrong-doing, as he picks up on the intemperate language of Cllr Ruhemann. He says he was "wriggling like a worm on a hook" and that his defence seemed to be "but sir, he called us names first."

It's also worth remembering the systemic failings in the childrens services department which resulted in the scandal surrounding the Baby T case over which Cllr Ruhemann was himself forced to resign by those he is now criticising. So there may well be powerful personal motives at play.

Meanwhile Jane Griffiths notes the use of 'an apartheid-era idiom' by Cllr Jo Lovelock, which she says raises questions about calculated intent as the Labour leader came to the defence of her partner.

And Jane follows up with a forlorn critique of twentieth-century totalitarian epithets by offering a bemused imagining of breakfast table chatter in the Lovelock-Ruhemann household!

Elsewhere the Green party's Cllr Rob White expresses his frustration with the political bickering, explaining how Labour are suffering from 'heroic amnesia' as they attempt to cover-up their own failings by attacking the coalition administration.

He uses the opportunity to seize hold of the political language, arguing that Labour are 'contaminated' by their track record and are therefore unreliable opponents of Conservative-LibDem budget plans.

Oranjepan says:
The overblown and sometimes affected outrage over inappropriate words in political discourse is a proxy battle to set the terms of public debate, in this case surrounding the current reform agenda. Whoever wins will gain effective control of perceptions and is likely to see an advantage at the ballot box come election time, so it might seem like petty bickering but it in fact reflects fundamental questions of future political direction.

Yet the use of emotive descriptions also has the effect of hardening opinion and polarising support for each side. This dramatises the issues and makes them easier for the public to consume, making decisions more clear-cut, but is not in the best interest of creating sustainable policies for the people of Reading - let alone at a time of economic uncertainty.

Most worrying for concerned citizens is the potential for the episode to prove counter-productive by opening the door to more extreme viewpoints who might wish a plague on all their houses...

So if equality is to be served and the situation is to be kept in proportion then resolution requires equal punishment for the equal crimes of all three councillors.

1 comment:

  1. Adrian Windisch6 March 2011 at 12:37

    I can see some confusion here, threre are more than one legitimate definition of quisling. A sensible politician would, if there words were taken as offensive, apologise for them, and explain what they meant.

    Apologising doesn't mean admitting they were wrong, just that they didn't know how others would take their words.

    All this fuss about words deflects from some very dangerous policies, we are facing cuts greater than under thather. The young generation can expect long term unemployment, the elderly real hardship as services are cut. For some politicians arguing about the definition of quisling is perfect cover. A good way to bury bad news.


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