In the Clash of Ideologies, Language Wins the War
Jim Morrison famously and prophetically said, “Whoever controls the media, controls the minds”.
This is certainly the case in Australia.
In this guest post Loz Lawrey looks at how the media – the Murdoch media in particular – shape out attitudes and opinions.
In 1988, Professor Noam Chomsky reminded us that the media “serve, and propagandise on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them” (1). Never has this fact been more blatantly obvious than it is today.
The glaring anti-Labor/Greens bias on display by the Murdoch-owned news media during the term of the Gillard Government exaggerated Labor’s dysfunction and gave credibility to a Liberal/National opposition devoid of policies or ideas, other than a plan to hand decision-making over to commercial vested interests.
Today much of the mainstream media’s energy is spent fulfilling the roles of apologist and spin doctor for a right-wing conservative government which serves the wishes of a global oligarchy.
Selective coverage of current affairs events, skewed “opinion” pieces disguised as news reportage, simplified “black or white” presentation which avoids all nuance – the mainstream media has an endless supply of tools for the manipulation of public perception.
There is, however, more to the message than what is essentially the delivery system, or the means of presentation. The TV or radio program, the article in the print media or even the political billboard are simply what the megaphone is to the voice – the means of imparting the message. It’s in the language that real power and control resides.
Political forces use language as the weapon of choice on the field of public debate – what some refer to as the battlefield of ideas. In this arena, the army with the sharpest, most evocative language will prevail. There is little need for true logic or reason to underpin one’s arguments, only that a perception of reasoned lucidity is created by the language used.
While all sides of politics strive for control of any public debate through their use of language, conservative forces in our society have become masters of what is known as weasel language, or weasel words. The terms come from the reputation of weasels for sucking eggs and leaving an empty shell – at first glance weasel words create an impression of real meaning supported by research-based evidence or expert advice, which upon closer inspection is found to be hollow and devoid of substance.
This mastery of language, together with the recent structural disarray in evidence on the left of the political spectrum, goes a long way to explain the survival of conservatism around the globe, despite its continuing assault on the public interest, both nationally and globally.
The work of bodies such as the right wing Institute of Public Affairs is as much about formulating the language used to justify its ideologically-based policies as it is in formulating the policies themselves.
Words such as “free” and “freedom” are tacked onto the labelling language used to define and create a perception of a proposal or idea. Hence we get “free market”, “free speech” and “freedom of choice”. Once you insert a word such as “free”, a benign impression is created of harmless intent.
So it is that when a spokesperson for the IPA argues that people should be “given the right” to work for less that $16 per hour, they are claiming that working for less than the established and agreed minimum is a freedom. In this way, shifting employment conditions closer to the slavery end of the spectrum is made to sound like a positive, liberating move. It will hardly be a liberating experience for those workers who endure it, however, when they find themselves working longer and harder for less or very little, unable to meet their own living needs.
The term “free market” creates an image of happy global business, unfettered by tariffs and protectionist regulations, with goods moving freely about, resulting in best outcomes for both business, workers and consumers. The fact that tariffs were developed as a means to counteract trade imbalance and injustice is swept aside, because who wouldn’t want “freedom” in the marketplace?
Now business regulation designed to level the playing field and increase real fairness in trade is labelled by conservative governments as “red tape”, an evil to be done away with. Environmental regulation intended to protect our natural heritage landscapes and control resource extraction is now dismissed as “green tape”.
These terms belie the fact that such regulation has been developed over many years in response to the perceived need to maintain balance and sustainability in all things into the future.
Even the term “sustainability” itself has been highjacked by the weasel-worders. When the term is used in the context of economic debate, any cuts to spending or public funding are easily justified. Old-age pensions? Unsustainable. A living-wage pay rise for child-care workers? Again, unsustainable.
The rhetoric of conservative ideology is cleverly employed over time to erode the positive public perception of ideas and institutions which are seen as contrary to the the right-wing world-view.
A gradual sanding-down of the public’s acknowledgment and appreciation of the workplace rights and entitlements won over years of union organising and picketing has been achieved by the repeated portrayal of unions as hotbeds of thuggery and corruption.
Dismissive rhetoric about “the left” ignores the fact that leftist political values are based upon social justice, inclusion and concepts of decency and fairness. The ongoing message is that an empathetic worldview is “loony” and that to embrace a cynical philosophy of “winners and losers” is to dwell in the “real world”.
In this way a political message has been delivered into the public sub-consciousness: that leftist views are “crazy” and “loony” in their consideration of the public good, and that right-wing extremist views which can only benefit a minority elite are “sensible”, “rational” and “economically sound”.
Somewhere, somehow, logic and reason lie bleeding and forgotten by the masses, while weasel words and tabloid headlines are regurgitated as valid arguments in the arena of public discussion.
(1) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman.
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