Forging a political language, Tony Simpson

In his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ George Orwell remarks that ‘one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end’. A year later in ‘Why I Write’ he amplified this: ‘… looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’. In his chilling ‘Appendix on Newspeak’ to 1984 he spelled out the implications of the manipulation of public language by an authoritarian regime.

Almost two decades previously, writing from a fascist prison cell (Letters from Prison), the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci, following up the Marxian concept of culture and language as instruments or forces of production, developed, independently of Orwell, his now famous concept of egemonia. According to this theory, legitimacy of a regime depends as much, or more, upon the conceptualisation of its authority as the only possible mode of rule, as it does ultimately upon guns and truncheons. What, I have often wondered, would these two have made of our society, devoid as it is of any public vocabularies specific to itself?

In New Zealand we have no habit and no consciousness of the nature of power and how it is exercised by our own government organisation. because we have no language in which to discuss it, to analyse its nature, its history and its functions. It is a curious lacuna almost unique to ourselves.

That we have an indigenous form of polity demanding expression is clear enough. One of its central characteristics is highlighted in the Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary. In defining the word ‘minority’ it gives as example: ‘We were only a minority, so our idea was rejected by the meeting’. In theory there is nothing ‘only’ about a minority; it is a numerical quantity. Notwithstanding, the definition is correct. In New Zealand, democracy has a moral dimension which it lacks in most other countries. To be in the minority is not just to lose a vote. It is to be in the wrong.

This of course creates endless social difficulties. Any political discussion involves ranking the participants in a hierarchy of moral status, so there is a tacit agreement built into all social discourse that we will not discuss politics. To ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t perpetrate such a lapse of taste, we have avoided learning how to conduct such discussions. Instead we have the famous rising inflection at the end of our sentences, and the widespread use of the stand-alone adverb. These ensure that not only are statements never made too strongly (no one says ‘I hope’ they say ‘hopefully’), but they almost all become interrogatives. The question they pose is: ‘Am I permitted to hold this view?’ because if I am not, I am ready to withdraw it. It is significant that the rising inflection is particularly noticeable in women, who occupy a subordinate social position. Maori have developed their own interrogative for the same reason. This is the ubiquitous ‘eh?’

This socio-linguistic curiosity creates two sorts of difficulties, however. The first is that whether we like it or not we are obliged from time to time to discuss public issues, so we have to find some means of doing so. Our solution is to borrow the vocabularies others have developed to describe political categories in their society not ours. Expressions such as ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘socialist’ are bandied about by New Zealand journalists and commentators, as if they accurately describe mainstream political orientations here. In fact they have never corresponded to our political realities.

We therefore get into trouble trying to understand our own political system, and what actually happens when public decisions are made. Thus, in trying to make sense of the debate over who should be chief executive of the Department of Defence, and why a previous Secretary had to go, we invented a fictitious debate between a ‘leftwing’ peace movement, and a ‘centre-right’ grouping believing in the status quo. In point of fact the actual debate is within the ruling groups of our society; it is between those who wish to establish financial accountability between the Ministry and Parliament (Treasury), and those who wish to keep control of regional defence arrangements within the Ministry itself, and the Ministry of External Relations and Trade. Our borrowed vocabularies of power cannot cope with this set of relationships, and so the nature of what is happening passes us by.

There are also important negative consequences of borrowing our vocabularies of power. Because people are not silly, after a time they will reject language that does not make sense of their experience. This explains why Marxism has never had any currency here, except with a small group of intellectuals and trade unionists. It does not characterise the experience of workers here, it belongs hi Europe. But we lack alternative and indigenous vocabularies. The language associated with what we have dubbed ‘Rogernomics’ (for want of any other concept), has rapidly captured political debate in the last six years because of this absence of alternatives, a vacuum imported vocabularies formerly had to fill. Now they have been largely discredited, we have no way of moving on from that experience. We remain stranded in a situation which pertained prior to their adoption.

Perhaps even more significant is the second consequence of our lack of political vocabularies. When we find we must debate a political issue specific to our own community, we focus on a matter which is peripheral or even irrelevant to the matter in hand. Thus, the two major public issues of the last decade, the Springbok tour in 1981, and the question of nuclear ship visits, often have had fundamentally nothing to do with their ostensible subjects. Rather, they are debates about the relationship between our state and its citizens, and the extent to which, between elections, the government is entitled to command its constituency.

In the case of the Springbok tour the debate became so heated as to be physically dangerous for its participants, and so we have all agreed not to talk about it further. We now use the nuclear ships debate instead. Or the Treaty of Waitangi, although, true to form, we here concentrate not on the nature of the event in history i.e. the context, but upon the text itself.

We are not unique in doing this, of course. Debate over ‘green’ issues, for instance, or the question of proportional representation, is common in many societies. Our difference lies in these being not, as in other communities, integrated into a coherent debate on the nature of political power. They remain isolated phenomena, in lieu of any other focus of discussion.

The most recent example of this phenomenon, and one of primary concern to the literary community, has been the argument over the question of the London apartment. This had little or nothing to do with the question of whether or not there should be a writers’ flat in London. Rather it was over the question of whether our culture is to develop, in future, as an expression of an egalitarian and democratic national ethos, or whether it is to remain largely inaccessible and élitist.

Until we develop our own vocabularies of power we will remain a colonial society. But on the day we become aware of having developed these, we will also become aware at last that our art and our literature are pre-eminently political matters.


Tony Simpson is a well-known Wellington writer and broadcaster.


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