Are we witnessing a crisis of political language? The current trends do not seem to provide a promising picture, as political debates in many parts of the globe have taken quite of a toxic approach. Two of the most recent – and shocking – political developments on both sides of the Atlantic provide useful examples to show not only how far this rhetoric has gone, but also how it has directly impacted on citizens. The Brexit referendum and the race for the American highest office have represented two of the most controversial campaigns of recent times.
To begin with, they have highlighted how we have probably entered an era of post-truth politics, which has been named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The robust and resolute critic by some of the most distinguished and respected newspapers, denouncing the consistent amount of pure and widespread lies dominating the debates, has been proved not only unsuccessful but also useless. The Leave campaign in the UK, with their famous and blatantly false £350 million figure, and Trump, with his 78% of false statements, have secured their respective victories.
As if outright lies were not enough, both campaigns have displayed an alarming high degree of aggressiveness that, combined with oversimplified arguments, has been proved fatal to reasoned and pluralistic debate. Prejudice against immigrants has been one of the dominant themes of both campaigns; immigrants have been depicted as criminals, rapists or terrorists, moving one step ahead from the already widespread “job-stealer” representation. The discourse in both campaigns has been filled with that much hatred, that the effects and impacts on the population have been immediately visible, the morning after the Leavers achieved their dream of divorcing the EU and after Trump secured his presidency. As The Independent denounces, since June 24th, the day after the referendum, racial or religious motivated assaults to immigrants have increased of 58%. In the U.S., the prominent civil right organization SPLC has identified 900 cases of hateful harassment and intimidation since the Election Day.
The risk this dangerous shift to aggressive political language is producing is two-fold. On the one hand, it seems to be giving people a mandate to hate. The Brexit has been turned strategically into a referendum on immigration, campaigned with aggressive rhetoric against the “Other”. It comes with no surprise that, for certain individuals, a victory of the Leave camp feels like intolerance has been legitimized. Clearly, the praising, acceptance and normalization of similar narratives translate into an extreme understanding of reality, where prejudice, verbal violence and harassment become mainstream. On the other hand, this kind of rhetoric has given birth to a process of homogenization. Eager to secure electoral success, maintain or win back popular support, some politicians are radicalizing their political discourse. Look at Viktor Orban, who is famous for his harsh and xenophobic rhetoric towards migrants and his political stands which are often and – not secretly – illiberal. As it emerges from the study of Polyakova and Shekhovtsov for World Affairs, his party has radicalized its stands in response to the growing success of the far right movement Jobbik. In an attempt to compete with the far-right challenge, politics is running the risk of “mainstreaming” their extremist narratives.
Seen it like this, politics seems to have lost its visionary and directional function. Instead of inspiring progress and educating voters, parts of the political class are surrendering to appealing the most basic instincts by means of an aggressive rhetoric, finger-pointing a variety of “enemies of the people”, for the sake of securing allegedly easy electoral victories.
But verbal violence is not political honesty. What is deeply concerning about the current political situation in both the European and American arenas is that these controversial figures, who make of verbal violence their bulwark, are wildly appreciated for their sincerity. (Raise your hand if you have never heard phrases likes “he/she finally says it like it is”). But let’s be clear: bragging about sexual harassment or praising dictators are not characterizations of rectitude. Promising mass deportations, institutionalizing discrimination against religious communities or casting doubt on the experts’ knowledge is not a providential break from the “corrupted politics as usual”. Lashing out at minorities, dropping racist remarks, or urging voters to arm against a contender are not just “colorful expressions”.
Indulging this rhetoric at the civic level does the same job as coopting it at party levels: mainstreaming hate.
Image source: Id-iom