Sam Leith

For political discourse to survive, we must be more honest about language

Interpretation is a subtle business – but it’s not difficult

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When I was an English literature undergraduate, we were all very careful to avoid what used to be called the ‘intentional fallacy’. This is the idea that you can use a text to get at what the author ‘really meant’. The so-called New Critics said, quite reasonably, that the text is all you’ve got to go on and, what’s more, it’s impertinent and irrelevant for a critic to start trying to figure out, say, whether Shakespeare is a racist from the evidence in ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’.

This is a useful principle in academic literary criticism (or one sort of academic literary criticism; that’s an argument for another day). But it seems to be trickling out into a place where it is less useful — public life.

An example: the black crime writer Walter Mosley recently quit the writers’ room on Star Trek: Discovery because a fellow writer complained about his use of language. As Mosley reported in a piece for the New York Times, he got a call from human resources. ‘A pleasant-sounding young man said, “Mr Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.” I replied, “I am the N-word in the writers’ room.’’’

That complainant was acting like a true New Critic. He looked at the utterance. He ignored the personal and historical context. He ignored the fact that Mosley was indeed the N-word in the writers’ room, and that he’d been using the word in a piece of reported speech. (Mosley: ‘I had indeed said the word in the room. I hadn’t called anyone it. I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all niggers in paddy neighbourhoods and all paddies in nigger neighbourhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.’) And he called HR.

Another example — much gone over to this day — is Boris Johnson’s notorious column in which he talked of ‘grinning piccaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’. This is treated by opponents as prima facie evidence of his racism. But the context in which those phrases occurred was one in which Johnson was spoofing a racist-paternalist neocolonial attitude — imagining Tony Blair as a ‘big white chief’ patronisingly gratified by the traditional trappings of imperialism.

From these decontextualised fragments — interpreted by militant amateur critics as if they are pure textual objects rather than part of a conversation — inferences about intention are made. Not just about intention but, in our ferociously identitarian age, about personal essence. This evidence doesn’t just tell us that a person used a racist word or a term associated with racist discourse. This evidence tells us that Boris Johnson is a racist. This evidence tells us that Walter frickin’ Mosley is a racist.

This weird two-step round the intentional fallacy is everywhere now. The one-step is to decontextualise; the two-step is to treat the finding as a ‘tell’: a little peek into the true nature of one’s enemies, a mark that indicates the difference between the elect and the damned and saves us the trouble of negotiating complexity. The latest iteration of it is in the discussion — much more heat than light — about political language and incitement to violence.

A reasonable, thoughtful person can make a good-faith distinction between the many figures of speech that are rooted in violence but do not connote or promote violence, and those in which the connotations do. When someone talks of a politician being ‘pilloried’ they in no way, even subliminally, seek to evoke the medieval practice of locking someone into fixed restraints so passers-by can throw rocks and vegetables at them. ‘Decimated’, as pedants never tire of telling us, originally described the summary execution of one in ten Roman legionaries. But it does not mean that now, and it would be silly and/or mischievous to affect to suppose it does.

Likewise those other figurative staples of political discourse: ‘backstabbing’, ‘defenestrating’, ‘decapitating’, ‘exploding’, ‘a glass of whisky and a revolver’, ‘dead cat’, ‘falling on your sword’, ‘enough rope to hang them’ and all the rest. If you call someone a turkey (whether or not they are ‘voting for Christmas’), a worm, a dog, a pig or a chicken you are — in most contexts — not seeking to ‘dehumanise them’ and legitimate violence against them. Again, it’s silly and mischievous to suppose as much.

But, look. Here context actually matters. There isn’t an off-the-peg answer to this, an easy, lazy fix where the moment you hear the word ‘black’ or ‘stab’, or an animal metaphor, you can say with certainty that the speaker is a racist or is seeking to incite violence. Nor can you automatically absolve any speaker of mischief by saying it’s all ‘just words’. Because a caution about taking figurative language literally is not to say that anything goes. Language makes a difference. It isn’t simply liberal snowflakery to think that calling Rwandan Tutsis ‘cockroaches’, Jews ‘vermin’ or ‘bacilli’, talking of ‘buck negroes’ or framing refugees as a depersonalised ‘swarm’ does actually legitimate the withdrawal of empathy, and all that follows.

If you frame your discussion of our negotiations with what the Prime Minister reflexively calls our ‘European friends’ in military terms, you play with fire. ‘Surrender bill’, ‘treason’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘the enemy’ and so on. Most sensible people will indeed recognise that this language is figurative, is amped-up, is not to be taken literally. But there is a significant minority of non-sensible people who are looking for a reason to have a fight, and that sort of language can serve as the reason. A grown-up politician will be circumspect.

At the risk of falling into the ‘very good people on both sides’ school of response to this, I should say that Remain partisans calling their opponents ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ and describing their constitutional chicanery as a ‘coup’ take no less of a risk. There’s an equally significant minority that will expressly argue that punching Nazis is A-OK, and if it decides that a politician is a ‘literal Nazi’ will have no hesitation in using violence.

If we want to stick to using words for politics rather than violence — which is where the whole idea of rhetoric begins — we need to honour words more. Interpretation is a subtle business. But it’s not that bloody difficult: we all do it naturally all the time. Outside old-school undergraduate practical criticism classes, we can and do look at context, likely meaning, at whether there’s a pattern of connotations that goes beyond a colourful metaphor.

You have to do the work of interpretation, in other words — not only in terms of your own language but how you read that of your opponents. And if our political discourse is to survive, you damn well have to do it in good faith.

Written bySam Leith

Sam Leith is an English author, journalist and literary editor of The Spectator.

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