Questioning Words

The Big Society is a phrase that we have all heard, a phrase that represents an ideal, a goal to push towards. But, like a lot of words used in politics, the phrase has no meaning. It is a nothingness that can only attain meaning when someone or something gives it meaning. Much of the constituents of this future Big Society have no idea what it means, or what it represents. Looking at the words individually; ‘big’ means large, great, fat, huge and bulky, and ‘society’ is a name for the collection of people that make up a civilisation, the totality of social relationships among humans or animals. So the literal meaning of the Big Society is a bulky, fat, large collection of the totality of human relationships. The word is a negation in itself; after all, isn’t society already large as it is? The notion of the Big Society is also a negation of Conservative politics; didn’t another Conservative say over twenty years ago that there was ‘no such thing as society’? We can see then, that the phrase ’Big Society’ in itself is nothing; that it means nothing without extra applied meaning.

What is the extra meaning? The Big Society is the name given to sweeping cuts on public services and the Conservative government’s idea of passing the work done by these public services on to the public. Although this is perhaps a cynical view to take of a set of measures that will purportedly increase the everyday person’s role in society, it’s difficult to see why exactly we should take on our tasks in the Big Society without being told the reasons why. In a society where a large proportion of the voting public have been left numb by the distancing effect of politics, it would perhaps be a good idea to reintroduce actual power and control to the communities that use the services. The only problem with this idea is that the public is extremely wary (and rightly so) of designs like this as they can’t believe that the government would want to relinquish control to the people. We have been told over the years that, without proper control, society would descend into chaos without some greater power overseeing everything. To now be given some power back after all this time strikes people as strange and they naturally start to look for a reason why. The fact that the term applied to this design ‘Big Society’ is from the same nomenclature as ‘blue skies’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ doesn’t help; it adds an extra layer of falsity to the whole thing.

When we think of political words and phrases in the modern world, people’s minds often turn to the works of George Orwell. It was in his book Nineteen Eighty Four that Orwell coined terms such as doublethink, big brother and the two minutes’ hate. In another of Orwell’s works, Politics and the English Language, he specifically focuses on the types of language used by politicians and advertisers, both of whom are trying to sell something to someone. Orwell writes that political prose or speech is formed to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, showing that he believed political prose to be chiefly formed to hide the meaning of something and is therefore shaped using meaningless words and phrases. The ‘Big Society’ is certainly one of these phrases; in that it has no intrinsic meaning and can only have meaning applied to it by an outside source. The outside source’s meaning to the phrase is masked in yet more ambiguous language; Big Society Bank, the Big Society Network and the National Citizen Service.

The main thrust, I think of Orwell’s essay is not about the fact that politicians or advertisers use vague and meaningless language; it’s about the fact that people within the society take on these phrases and words and don’t question the meanings applied to them. Orwell says, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks… English … becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

I think that this is true not just for language, but also for opinions. Looking at politicians to start with, it can be said fairly accurately that a large proportion of the voting public in the UK see politicians, as a whole, as people not to be trusted, as people who we have to be wary of. The questioning of authority is a good thing, but the questioning of politicians as a whole has gone beyond inquiry and into cynical questioning that believes it already knows the answer. Our experience of politicians tells us that we should not trust them; that they say one thing and do another. This method works well with much experience we gain over time as we grow older; we touch a hot pan, it hurts and we learn not to do it again, or at least not without protection. But these experiences of more simplistic feelings are not as easy to transfer to complex experiences such as assessing personalities or allegiances; perhaps this is the reason that, despite negative ideas about politicians and politics, people still vote. Collecting the different assessments and thoughts associated with people takes more of an extended and thoughtful approach. It’s the negation of this that causes people to have an opinion about a group of people as a whole.

The approach of seeing a whole group of people as the same, or at least as similar enough to make a generalisation, is a lazy way of having an opinion. Rather than extending their knowledge of a group by actively meeting and assessing each member as they meet them, the lazy opinion holder will simply base their judgements of a group on their experience of just one or two members of this group, thereby thinking that all pans are hot when extended experience would tell them differently.

This lazy thinking is applied to all areas of experience of people to politicians, races, religions, sexualities; even people from different cities. One major example that has become more prevalent over the years is the opinion of Americans. Americans have a reputation of being loud, self-righteous, bigger-is-better theorists, and while this may be true of some Americans, it is incorrect and lazy to think that all Americans are the same. This idea of America has come from, I feel, American advertising and the foreign policy of America. Since when have such abstract factors ever shown what a group of people as a whole are like? America, in fact, has contributed greatly to the modern world in all spheres of the arts, science, technology and education; to dismiss the American people as crass materialists is to forget that they have achieved many great things as well as some failings. An extended assessment of America’s people would show this but many people are happy to have lazy opinions about them and thus diminish the authenticity and honesty of the greater part of the American people.

Some people also try to cover their lazy thinking by saying things such as: “it’s only a joke; lighten-up a bit and stop being so serious all the time”. This is just another excuse for lazy thinking. It means that the person who is thinking lazily cannot stand up for their own thinking and so they feel that they have to blame others for their reactions to this lazy thinking.

To link it back to Orwell’s essay, the language used in lazy thinking is very similar to the language used to cloak truth and honest thought. Words used in lazy thinking tend to have meanings and connotations which are applied by the user. A negative comment about a group is then followed with a phrase such as: “but he/she’s a politician, so what do you expect?” or “Well, he/she’s American, that’s what they’re like”. The lazy thinking overrides any sense of questioning with a blanket statement and therefore diminishes the subject and reduces it to an ‘already thought about it and made up my mind’ state.

In order to combat this sort of lazy thinking, the thinkers themselves need to change their thoughts. Rather than reducing thought down to simplistic phrases and words which only rely on negative thinking and connotation, the person should only make judgements (if judgements need to be made at all) after they have a collected an extended set of experiences. If a person hasn’t had a lot of experience with a particular group, then they should say so and not rely on the opinions of others. The responsibility is also on us as viewers of lazy thinking to do something about it. Although it may be difficult to challenge lazy thinking with friends and family, it should still be done. Even if it is brought up in a light-hearted way, the fact that the lazy thinking has been challenged is the most important thing.

Whether words or phrases are used to deliberately cover misrepresentation or whether words and phrases are used by lazy thinkers as a way to bypass real thought, it is our job as human beings in a complex world to challenge them. The reduction and cloaking of debates and topics using pre-made words and phrases merely diminishes them in a time when we should be taking more notice.


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