Thursday, January 10, 2013

Skivers and strivers, workers and shirkers: why words matter

In a cracking Guardian article today, Zoe Williams takes a critical look at the new language used to split the haves and the have-nots. With this week's vote on limiting benefit increases affecting millions of people - many of them/us actually in work - it's clear that to successfully turn one part of society against the other, you need to win the language war first.

As Williams explains, the false dichotomy created by labelling one group as strivers - working hard, supporting themselves, not relying on benefits - and another group as skivers - not working, sponging benefit taxpayers' money to pay for a feckless lifestyle on a council estate - has rapidly been established and spread into our own language and thinking. But why?

Don't tell me it is because it rhymes. It will destroy my faith in humanity, and that's exactly what they want. But the point is not that politicians spout it, nor that people who haven't given it any thought believe it. The point is that it has seeped so far, so fast, into the national consciousness as a meaningful idea that the very people vilified by it – the people who know they are unemployed by circumstance and not by choice – feel their lives judged against its fictional benchmarks.

So, while Iain Duncan-Smith (a man who recently claimed that £70 a week was too much for Job Seekers' Allowance but allegedly put in a £39 bill for a single breakfast, charged to the taxpayer) is busy chipping away at what already impoverished people can get in support, he must be happy that there are massive misconceptions among the public about how much of the government's budget goes into social security payments or how much those payments actually amount to and that people are so easily convinced that they are shirkers while we are workers. Williams goes on to argue that the shift in language - especially the move from the positive connotations of social security to welfare - has coincided with a shift in attitudes:

People sometimes ascribe this adoption of "welfare" as an Americanism, designed to convey some of the US's sneering synecdoche where the name of the government support becomes shorthand for the person being supported. I think it's also an attempt to dehumanise people on state benefits – we never used to talk about welfare in terms of humans, but the word has been in everyday UK usage, for as long as I can remember, to describe animals. To be in receipt of state benefits thus tacitly becomes a passive, piteous, dumb thing to do. You don't necessarily begrudge the animals their welfare, but you wouldn't mistake yourself for one of them.

It's exactly the kind of language technique we've looked at on the AS level course, using animalistic imagery to describe young people as feral or hunting in packs. Once you demonise the group you're attacking through language, it makes it easier, not only for the dominant group to carry out more attacks, but for others to sympathise with the attacks and align themselves with the persecutors rather than the victims, even if they themselves are probably next in the government's firing line.

This is the kind of language that the linguist Norman Fairclough highlights in his Critical Discourse Analysis approach to language study. If we don't analyse and challenge language choices, we get sucked in by them and end up accepting such false dichotomies, such intrinsically unfair outlooks, and even end up recycling it ourselves. With critical language analysis, however, we can start to pull apart those choices, highlight the ideologies that lie behind them and make our own educated choices about what we think or feel.

That's how language matters and why we need to analyse it.

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