Name-calling and the policing of language

30th August 2018

Our society is entering the fourth decade of a cultural war that has centred around the use and misuse of language. In the 1980s, the locus of that battle was the avoidance of language perceived to be insulting or excluding towards those who lacked power or privilege: so-called ‘political correctness’. One side of the conflict argued that they were advocating no more than a form of diplomacy within society. The other feared that language-policing would result in feelings trumping facts, and the death of nuance. The concern is that those who advance unpopular opinions are pilloried and ultimately silenced. To undermine open discussion and debate is to attack the foundations of our liberal, democratic society.

The companion of language-policing is name-calling. It is depressingly common to see one side of a debate label the other a ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ or ‘Islamophobe’, in response to a mildly heterodox position, as a method of shutting down the argument. In conjunction with language-policing, the impact of name-calling is that moderate voices are shut out of political discourse. As a consequence, politics becomes increasingly polarised and unhealthy.

Name-calling played a significant part in establishing and policing the Remain/Brexit divide. Anybody who has discussed the case for remaining in, or leaving the European Union with their friends will know a range of diverse reasons underpinned their choice. Some voters will have been motivated by right-wing populists. However, I know liberal Brexit voters from a BAME background whose decision reflected sincere concerns relating to sovereignty, economic policy, or freedom of movement. Others feared that authoritarian states, such as Turkey, might one day be granted EU membership. Notwithstanding the diversity of opinions, many on the Remain side of the debate glibly branded anyone who voted for Brexit a ‘fascist’ and a ‘racist’.

A similar dynamic is at play in the debate surrounding the face veil: the burqa and niqab. Many Muslims equate the face veil with Salafist culture and see it as a marker for political extremism. Others raise genuine concerns about security, or the position of women who are coerced into veilling. In the Muslim-majority Middle East, it is the political Left, and in particular, the Syrian-Kurdish authorities, that has championed equality between the sexes, secularism, and have banned the full face veil. In the United Kingdom, with some exceptions, the Left has taken the opposite position. We know, of course, that the far-Right have attacked the hijab for the purpose of promoting anti-Muslim bigotry. However, to treat all those who raise thoughtful objections to veilling as ‘Islamophobes’ makes it almost impossible to engage in sensible debate.

Name-calling and language-policing has both created and exacerbated a fault line within society, in which the political Left and Right have retreated to their respective corners. We are in the throes of an equal and opposite backlash. Donald Trump was able to tap into this market, and at least partly as a result, was elected as President of the United States. When the political spectrum is stretched to its extremes and nuance is removed from public dialogue, freedom of expression – the cornerstone of our liberal, democratic society – begins to crumble.