Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Political Language. . . .

Continuing on with the theme of political machismo, we should talk about the degree to which specific, everyday language reinforces the notions of machismo. Common expressions of attack against liberally minded or leftwing people use metaphors designed to view such people as weak. For example, environmentalists are often referred to as "tree-huggers." This expression is a denigration of the very notion of care or affection, connoting the idea that those who hug or are convivial are somehow weak and that this weakness demonstrates a naivety. It is no coincidence that this expression has overtones of the weakness of traditional notions of femininity, a tendency which shows itself in other such derisive idioms. Take, for example, the common denigration of any state-sponsored social efforts in the use of the expression "nanny-state." This is a blatant disparagement of the traditionally female role of child-care which lowers the ideas of raising children, femininity, and familial supportiveness all in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, in order to legitimize Margaret Thatcher as a political leader the epithet "iron" (connoting something strong and unbendable) had to be attached to her status as a "lady," as though a woman could not be a symbol of strength without  a base metal being grafted on to her. The common expression "bleeding-heart" is another example of macho denigration of all things feminine. By attaching this idiom to anyone who shows undue concern for the welfare of others, once again macho culture uses traditional notions of femininity to disparage acts of care and tenderness.

Meanwhile, violent or male-oriented metaphors abound when it comes to painting a positive picture of someone's political advocacy. "Straight-shooter," "Drug-Czar," "Stay the Course," "Tough on Crime," "War Room," "Political Muscle," are all more of less positive expressions which de facto glorify machismo while raising the masculine to a high place in political nomenclature. This is obviously no coincidence. The fact that the "Terminator" could so easily become the governor or California while popularizing the expression "girlie-man," gives one a quick glimpse into the workings contemporary political reality.

The world changes very slowly and there is little chance that I will see a significant change to political machismo in our culture. In fact, I believe that despite the gains made against sexism and racism during my lifetime, the machismo of political culture is still remarkably strong. The victory of Harper and his bully tactics are surely evidence that in recent years enlightened social concern has taken a significant hit.


doconnor said...

No one says "Tree-hugger" without joking these days. They probably never did.

"'nanny-state.' This is a blatant disparagement of the traditionally female role of child-care which lowers the ideas of raising children, femininity, and familial supportiveness all in one fell swoop."

I think the people who say it are putting child-care on a pedestal where it is too important for the state to be involved, rather then disparaging it.

kirbycairo said...

Once again doconnor, I am compelled to disagree with you. I regularly listen to rightwing radio in Canada and the States and people regularly use the phrase "tree-hugger."

As for "nanny-state" you seem to live on a different planet than I. In other words, you couldn't be more wrong.

sassy said...

This and your previous posts on the topic - well done!!!

sassy said...

Came across this and it reminded me of your posts.

Democracy in Reverse

kirbycairo said...

Thanks Sassy! Good one.

doconnor said...

Do when people complain about Social Darwinism they are deriding evolution (and me).

kirbycairo said...

If I understand your comparison doconnor I have to say that it is problematic in a couple of important ways.

Though the roots of the phrase "social Darwinism" were negative, since the the rise of neo-conservatism in the West it is not uncommonly used as a defence and justification for a rightwing worldview, as though this political view has some kind of basis in science. I lived in Alberta for many years and cannot tell you how many times I heard this phrase used as a badge of pride. This clearly gives this phrase a different kind of status than many other "political labels."

However, this is a specific case and does not deal with the spirit of what you are saying.

To deal with that issue, I raise a much more important one, the issue of power. The use of language in such instances by powerful people is simply not the same when it is used to denigrate those already in a position of vulnerability. The use of the "N" word by a member of the Mississippi Klan is different than the use of that word by an African American. Moreover, if a wealthy and powerful man calls a woman a whore it is different than when a poor, intercity woman calls that man an a**hole. It is different because the dynamics of power are different.

The use of the phrase "social Darwinism" has not been used against vulnerable people who possess no power, it has been used against people that have a lot of power and seek to gain more through a bogus use of science, and more often than not violence.

These things are always about power doconnor - how power clusters and how it is exercised. And frankly, I am mystified by the way in which you continually miss this point. I have to say that you are prone to a reductionism that does you no favours in the realm of complex social discourse.

doconnor said...

After looking it up, reductionist is a label would be willing to wear.

So you are saying you shouldn't use "Nanny" in an analogy because of past and present repression of women?

I'm not a fan of collective punishment or collective benefits for or against groups of people. In the examples you give judgement should be based on the individuals involved rather then the groups that they happen to belong to.

Would you hold back on criticizing Margret Thatcher because she is a woman?

kirbycairo said...

Reductionism, like the worst kinds of empiricism, leads to conclusions that are unnecessarily simplistic and fail to describe events or processess adequately. Live with it if you would like but you will cripple your social understanding.

People have to be understood both as individuals and as products of collectives. They could never be understood as entirely one or the other. That doen't mean that they can be "reduced" to their social interactions, nor can they be isolated from those interactions.

The question concerning Thatcher is obviously absurd and suggests that you have not followed me at all.

The issue is not "can you criticize someone's actions," it is being aware of the ways in which the power relations of our socio-economic system are reinforced through institutions, relations, and (as I have been saying here) through language. The fact is that Thatcher's gender was always an issue and when she was PM one could often hear people use the phrase "for a woman" Thatcher was this or that. Careful attention to language can remind us that there may be a woman Prime Minister but that doesn't mean that sexism is gone. Or, a more contemporary example, there may be a black president but that doesn't mean racism has vanished.

One can criticize Obama, but it is still important to understand the way racism works in institutions and in language.