I’m looking forward to hearing more about business bashing from CEOs who earn around 10-40 times the average wage (or their entitled mates in parliament or lobby groups), and the bonk ban taken up by journalists and commentators.

As if political policies weren’t maddening enough, we also have to endure the reporting and rhetoric. Injury, meet insult.

These kinds of phrases are commonplace. Want to suggest that the redistribution of wealth for the common good is inherently damaging? Talk about “toxic taxes”. Like to position yourself as the (aggressive) defence against this damage? “Axe the tax”. Interested in reducing patterns of privilege and disadvantage to bourgeois individual virtues? “Lifters and leaners”.

These ploys are well understood, though they often work by slipping beneath our conscious awareness. Metaphors help to frame debates, drawing on visceral responses rather than careful analysis. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in Metaphors We Live By, these are not merely decorative tropes. They help to nudge us in particular directions, by drawing on everyday experience. (Including the idea of being nudged in a particular direction: a bodily metaphor for influence.)

Obviously some metaphors are so old, their only power is familiarity: “hoist with his own petard” is used with surprising fervour on social media and in newspapers. Perhaps this was a striking metaphor in Elizabethan England. Now it simply means someone did themselves in — or it means nothing, because “hoist” is rarely used for being thrown, and “petard” is rarely used at all.

Still, even weak tropes are useful, if they push the right ideological buttons. Talking about “latte sippers”, for example, is an easy way to dismiss urban progressives. Yet latte is reportedly Australia’s most popular coffee, so presumably many who use the phrase also enjoy the drink (or have friends or family who do). It makes no sense as a synecdoche slur, but it lets us know which team they (inarticulately) scream for.

Meanwhile, alliteration and assonance make phrases memorable (“adding insult to injury”), and repetition by leaders and pundits makes them familiar.

Politicians use this language to get the results they want: from persuasion, to manipulation, to outright deception. Tony Abbott’s refugee “back door” does not exist, but it makes those asking for refuge seem like cheats. There is no queue to jump. Still, this is handy language for anyone hoping to get political cachet by protecting Australian voters from that enduring bogeyman: the greedy foreigner.

And what of journalists? Partisan opinion-merchants have certainly taken language straight from politicians or think tanks. The use of “political correctness” — originally an American conservative invention — as a catch-all dismissal of progressive politics has worked brilliantly. Others simply use whatever terms are popular: “bonk ban”, for example. The words flow easily, and attract clicks and perhaps dollars.

In short, this language isn’t disinterested. Various agendas are promoted by slogans and boilerplate phrases: parties jostling for votes, lobbyists for policy, newspapers for profit. Words reflect our bigotries, and it takes some toil to overcome these for the sake of truth or fairness.

What’s more aggravating is not the mere fact of vested interests, or how shallow and lazy much of the language is. Rather, it’s how well it all works. In politics, economic jargon gives simplistic ideas an atmosphere of hard-won wisdom. Extruders take up interview minutes with empty waffle. During this recent Barnaby Joyce episode, ethical and political conflicts were successfully turned into a simple drama of sexual intrigue, complete with the “bonk ban” hashtag.

Given the interests involved, it’s naive to expect widespread change. Still, some resistance is worthwhile. Journalists might spend more time asking politicians or other public figures to explain their various soundbites. They could even avoid using ready-made slogans themselves. As always, there’s a case for education: making everyone, from children upwards, aware of these linguistic tricks, and those they serve. At the very least, this is a case for listening and reading more patiently; stopping to pause and interrogate, rather than moving straight to the comments box.

These phrases work chiefly as distractions, distortions, delays; they’re supposed to keep us from thinking about what’s important and true. Put simply, they’re anti-intellectual tactics. As soon as they’re examined critically, they’ve already failed — a small but genuine victory.

Peter Fray

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