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Lexicography. The Last Chance for Humanity?

July 25, 2015


I’ve not followed much of the UK Labour leadership debate.  I mean, I’m as much of a masochist as the next pervert, but there are limits and sometimes there are links and clicks that I can’t bring myself to visit.

It’s one thing to admit that you haven’t won an election.  It’s another to prostrate yourself in front of the (barely) winning party like you’re a first timer client of a dominatrix, struggling to remember your safety word.

I’m old fashioned.  I thought that winning a UK election meant securing enough MPs to form a government capable of passing a legislative programme.  This particular government has been elected with around 37% of the electorate and 23% of the eligible electorate.  It’s not a great mandate but it’s a legal one within this voting system (which can and will be changed).

Loud voices within Labour, the losing party (who actually increased their share of the vote since 2010) are behaving as though this 23% mandate has secured authority over the English language itself.  From now on, word mean what the Tories want them to mean and the only responsible thing to do is to pack up your tents and move them half way to where they are now.  The 23% have spoken and argument is redundant.

Here is Owen Bennett explaining to Owen Jones that “It’s not the Left’s Turn” to run the Labour Party

What is missing from Bennett’s article is any sense of being “Left” or “Right” other than on a sliding scale of relative horribleness defined entirely by the Right (if the Right happens to be winning).  The terms “Left” and “Right” owe their origins to the seating preferences of delegates to the French National Assembly in the 1790s.  They don’t refer to any secure policies, or stable values underpinning those values.  Stuff that was pretty centrist a few decades ago is pretty left now.

Now of course the right wing tabloid press will crucify someone like Jeremy Corbyn as a loony lefty.  But they will also crucify Liz Kendall.  Because crucifying leaders of the Labour Party is what they do.  The Blairites will, say that there are degrees of crucifixion and there’s something worse than usual crucifixion that everyone should fear (reminding me of the Dungeon scene from Life of Brian).  But the truth is that the real issue is not so much choice of Labour leader.  The real issue is whether or not an opposition party is allowed to articulate values at all, or whether they aren’t somehow obligated to surrender not only power but language itself to their enemies.

“Left” and “Right”, in the hands of a right wing press, mean whatever the Right want them to mean.  If the Government announced that 90% of the population were to be chained up and forced to work as slaves, then any counter proposal that only 80% of the population should be enslaved would become a “Left Wing” proposal.

The real issue is whether there’s any perceived entitement left to assert and if necessary dispute the meaning of words.

Take “Aspiration”.  If there’s one thing that the Tories have proven it’s that they hate aspiration and have done their successful best to try and stop it.  Regressive taxation, sky high university fees, unpaid internships etc. etc. have helped to accelerate the UK’s status as the least socially mobile nation in the developed world.  Tory theologians have discovered that failure to exit the right birth canal is the mysterious Sin Against the Holy Ghost – the one unforgivable sin that is to be punished not only in this lifetime but for all eternity – a punishment visited upon your children, children’s children and remote posterity.

Yet because the Tories have declared that they are pro-aspiration and they have secured their 23% of the eligible electorate, aspiration must now mean the exactly the opposite of what it’s meant for centuries.  And Labour, as a mere opposition party, is apparently obligated to accept this semantic reversal without a whimper.  They are required to “meet the Tories half way”  and help reinforce this hierarchical immobile hereditary oligarchy.  Just to secure the so called “centre ground”.

If words did not apparently have to mean whatever the Tories say they mean – there are a variety of things Labour could do.  They could remind people that “Welfare” (which was a warm friendly word within living memory) is not anti-aspirational and start publicising some real data that shows that nations with the most comprehensive welfare systems have the highest rates of social mobility.  They could interpret this data by suggesting that when people are struggling to survive on a day to day basis, they don’t aspire to much.

But the supreme power of lexicography, of definitional authority, conferred upon the Tories by the May 2015 election causes all facts, all demonstrations of logic, to disintegrate.   How dare any opposition use mere facts or logic to challenge the mighty 23% mandate?  The Tories have won the Dictionary.  So Mote It Be.

Facts.  Facts, Ideas and Values.  Who owns them?

I sort of wish it was still Samuel Johnson.


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