Thursday, December 02, 2010

The words we use: ConDem

I'm wrestling with the pedantry demon at the moment - and losing! It's not a pretty sight. However, I might as well let that primal scream of nit picking out while it's gnawing at my innards.

I've been particularly excised recently by the constant use of the phrase 'ConDem' to describe the coalition government. It's on leaflets, placards, blog posts and even painted on faces. My problem is that it reeks of dogma.

The moment I hear someone use the phrase I know with absolute certainty that this is not a 'normal' person but a political activist. I've never heard any member of my family use the phrase, any of my non-activist friends nor come across it in everyday conversation, even when discussing the government.

The *only* time I hear it in use is from committed political activists. Just as the only people I've ever seen raising Greece as a *good* example to us all (as in the picture) are people from some very specific political traditions. Now, while there is a political purpose to talking about Greece and things we can learn from this, the phrase ConDem simply serves to create an internal language for the left that excludes those we're seeking to bring in.

It's effectively the equivalent of the right's Zanu-Nu-Labour that tried to draw similarities between Mugabe's regime and Brown's. It's sole useful function is that it allows you to identify people who are going to be against the government no matter what happens, effectively ruling them out of any rational debate.

For me, ConDem is very much like the phrase FibDem. Whoever came up with it can feel rightly smug about a nice turn of phrase, but the moment it goes into your everyday language it's just lazy and childish. These pieces of jargon seek to deepen the tribalism of the situation at the expense of reasoned analysis.

Don't get me wrong, some people love it. Just as some people like screaming the word 'SCUM' at the top of their lungs on demonstrations. God bless them all I say, but I hope it's worth bearing in mind that while the name calling is an easy way of making one part of the movement feel warm and cuddly it simultaneously makes another part of the movement wince in embarrassment.

Where it's a political point (like Greece) let the debate go unabated and difference flourish - where it's a question of semantics why adopt jargon that adds nothing to your point but creates a barrier to potential allies enthusiastically embracing your ideas? Even if it's only 5% of people who end up labelling you as dogmatic, that's 5% of people that we want, that we've lost.

Obviously there's no neutral way of speaking and we all have dialects and idiosyncrasies that some will like better than others, which is one reason why political and cultural diversity is a good thing when you're trying to build a movement, but I'm not quite sure that's the same thing as using language only a clique relate to. Even if it's a large clique.

It's just a thought. Hopefully I'll win my war with that scoundrel Pendantry soon. I'd hate to become one of those dreary language-police people you find patrolling round the left. In the mean time I hope you'll forgive me.


Alasdair Thompson said...

Absolutely agree with you on this one Jim. I get the same feeling when I hear Greens talk about 'the grey parties' too. We shouldn't change what we say, but we do have to speak to people in a language they understand and with which they feel confortable.

Cathryn said...

That kind of pedantry strikes me as admirable.

It's too easy to create a label, shout it at someone and then refuse to listen any more. I'm sure that's one of the reasons the left is so spectacularly unsuccessful in this socially liberal but economically conservative country.

Even at a fairly friendly gathering of the left like the CoR on Saturday its very easy to feel quite alienated if you don't, for instance, strongly identify as an oppressed member of the working class (or at least accept that the working class as a whole is de facto oppressed), or accept the assumption that capitalism is the root of all evil. These are enormously radical concepts to most people. But it is quite possible to think that most of the cuts are unfair and not necessary without buying into the whole shebang.

Maybe that's why it seems to be students leading the fight against the cuts, rather than the organised left?

Sorry, ramble. You knew I wasn't a very good comrade anyway, didn't you?

James Mackenzie said...

Yes! The last lot were worse, incidentally, at their peak. It was Bliar's Za-Nu Liebore on some materials I saw. We definitely shouldn't do that.

It is time to start calling this what it is, though - a Tory government. The policies are Tory, the PM's a Tory, etc. Folk know it's got Libs working in it, but that also points out that they got next to nothing through it.

Bob Piper said...

I agree... And said so here:

Charlie said...

So glad you mentioned this. I don't like it's silly.

Jim Jepps said...

Thanks all. Good post Bob.

Al: yes on grey parties, I've tried it a few times but it never really works for me. I think that's partly because privatising public services or bombing people isn't very grey and boring to my mind.

James: I tend to call it either the coalition government (which I think is both 'normal' and emphasises the awful consensus at the centre of Westminster politics) or the Liberal Democrats and their coalition partners (which I find amusing because I'm a horrible person).

Tom Chance said...

Quite right, glad you said it!

Ben Duncan said...

Great post Jim: personally, I think it's not just lazy (although I've certainly been guilty of using the ConDem phrase from time to time) - it's politically missing a trick too. I think we need to describe the Government as it is: a minority Tory one, not least because it reminds people (a) that it's being propped up by the Lib-Dems against the wishes of the electorate and (b) that the Tories don't enjoy majority support



weggis said...

Well, I think ConDem sums it up quite nicely.
But I also like the notion of referring to "the Conservative Government" as though the "Dems" are irrelevant.

Jim Jepps said...

I think Ben's point about their minority status is rather good - showing that they are implementing a radical (right) programme on a minority support.

however, I'm definitely for highlighting the LD role in government because they should be ashamed of themselves - the Tories are just being Tories.

Joe Otten said...

Well I tried to coin the term the LiberaTor coalition, but that didn't seem to catch on.

But seriously, if you think the Tories left to their own devices would take low earners out of income tax, not replace Trident, restore the right to protest, or protect half the spending that has been protected even if the coffers were full, then you have a much higher opinion of them than I do.

Given that it has much less money to spend than the last one, not of its own choosing, this government is doing pretty well all things considered.

Is there anything bad in the programme you can point to that would have been out of character and surprising for Labour to have done? There's a challenge for you.

Jim Jepps said...

Well the coalition's economic policy is rather different from Labour's for a start.

However, I'd describe it as different flavours of the same dish rather than a meal selected from a different menu.

However there are lots of things (like locking up kids or rhetoric on keeping immigrants out) that would have been quite at home in a Labour government.

And of course there are some things where this coalition is better than Labour.

I'm not 100% sure I am obliged to defend Labour's record and if I was the supporter of a government I certainly would not try to defend it by saying that we weren't doing anything that would have been out of character for Labour.

Anonymous said...

While I have a preference for sentences and paragraphs I recognise the need for short snappy labels (and slogans and sound bites).

ConDem as a label for the current coalition government is fine by me. It contains "con" as in con-trick and it approximates to "condemn". Both of these have negative connotations.

I think it's also worth bearing in mind that terms are to some extent defined contextually and used consistently over a period of time will be increasingly understood and become a useful shorthand.

I also like the term "grey parties". It's negative and amongst other things suggests, for this 60 year old, a reference to the greyness of the post war years which was challenged in the 1960s with an alternative which looked forward to a world which was much more peaceful and more fun in a number of respects (s & d & R&R) and, don't forget, included a great deal of concern about the environment and green issues.