Our words, language and meanings are being stolen and then used against us. In an era when evidence, facts, analysis and science are being actively undermined, language becomes an important battleground.

This is to been seen, for example, on a daily basis for in the US, Britain, Brazil, Russia and Italy; there are many more locations that could be added. It has also becoming increasingly obvious and even ‘normal’ here in Malta.

Words and meanings are not only stolen, they are twisted and usurped and then used to attack us. Key words and values have become so degraded they have come to mean exactly the opposite of what we popularly understood them to mean.

They are crudely mobilised to mask particular agendas and actions and to manipulate public understanding and sentiment. Repeated ad nauseam, we are told ‘this is democracy’, ‘this is the rule of law’, ‘this is the will of the people’, ‘this is progress’, ‘all else is fake’.

This plundering of language and meaning, this pillaging of truth represents a victory of vested interests over people and society.

The abuse of language and ideas allows such interests to ridicule critics and critical thought; to marginalise them and to offer them as targets for private and public scorn and even hate.

This contorted language allows them to vilify opponents and any kind of opposition itself and seeks to deprive them of apparent meaning and relevance.

It promotes the dismissal of legitimate debate and concern as being ‘anti-progress’, ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-democratic’ and of course ‘anti-national’.
To be a critic is to be traitorous; to be guilty of betrayal, to be anti-patriotic and to be a negativist of the very worst sort. 

Talk of preserving and valuing heritage, buildings, land, trees, beaches, plants or even birdlife and the response is immediate – ‘so, you’re against progress?’

Talk of preserving and valuing heritage, buildings, land, trees, beaches, plants or even birdlife and the response is immediate – ‘so, you’re against progress?’

To speak about the bulldozing of the most basic rights of residents and communities and the response is a sneering ‘our burgeoning economy demands it’.

To speak of the abuse of power, of influence and of preferential access and the response becomes menacing – ‘the people have spoken and you are against them’.

To speak of endemic corruption in almost every facet of daily life and the response is that you are attacking the ‘foundations of the state’.

To speak of a better, more democratic way, one that respects all and the response intones ‘this is how it has always been’, ‘there is no alternative’.

Search for considered analysis, facts or policies and the response is a fatuous tweet, an empty press release or the fantasies and emotional venting of trolls.

Search for transparency and accountability and the response is ‘my right to privacy and protection’, ‘commercial sensitivity’ or the now daily ‘it is subject to an enquiry and it would be inappropriate…’

Political speech and ‘communication’ has indeed become, as Orwell argued, the defence of the indefensible. As words and ideas become debased, so too does what is considered normal. The more outrageous the biggest lies, the more acceptable the routine ones become. We watch the truth fade further and further away.

As political language becomes meaningless, so too does routine civic engagement. ‘Join us or be a loser’ becomes the stark choice. As the old British sitcom suggested ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’.

To contribute meaningfully and positively to public discussion and judgement, citizens need to be able to form their own political judgments, on the basis of facts and well-founded interpretations as well as values. Language is a key part of this citizenship.

A language that denies, conceals, lies, insults and threatens is anti-democratic by any standard. A language that explains, expresses, encourages and respects is a foundation stone of democracy. The former is in the ascendancy while the latter is urgently needed.

Stealing words, language and meaning and using it to undermine individuals and society is disgusting, reprehensible and unforgiveable. Reclaiming words, language and meaning is one vital step in the fight back.


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