Language Reveals Power

I’ve always been a fan of George Carlin. He was one of the first mainstream comedians to use humour against power, and there aren’t many comedians who have forced the US Supreme Court to consider laws on speech and obscenity. He was, in my mind, the great link from Lenny Bruce to present-day commentators like Jon Stewart. And Carlin was one of the few celebrities who never seemed to sell his soul… at least not explicitly. (I admit, Shining Time Station was not a highpoint of Carlin’s career.) In any case, you have to respect the wisdom of a guy who says, “If God had intended us not to masturbate, he would’ve made our arms shorter”. A modern day sage, I say.

On the other hand, I recently came across a passage from Carlin where he argues that “by and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth”. I’ve heard this kind of argument before, and I’m not so sure I can agree.

Is it language that conceals truth? Or is it the forces – economic, political, demographic – that encourage certain speech/text to be produced and venerated, and other speech/text to be censored, ridiculed or ignored? I believe it’s the latter. I’m not saying that language is neutral or inert, as if it’s a simple mirror that perfectly represents a physical reality. I just believe that language finds it difficult to hide its speaker’s or author’s intentions. Language just can’t help itself. If you know where and how you look, language will eventually reveal its relationship to power – be it domination or submission or defiance. Language is like that friend who just can’t keep a secret.

Case in point: the unions versus the bondholders in the ongoing GM debacle.

Have you ever noticed that the corporate press and their followers always couch union activities in moral terms? Thus, if a union like the CAW moves to defend its members’ pensions, the language of moral condemnation comes out with clarity and predictability. A good example (though a rather muted one, considering the source) comes from The National Post, Canada’s newspaper equivalent to Fox News. In a typical puff piece, the NP recently let Garth Whyte, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, write his own story. Read the article carefully. Whyte tries to be understated, but he just can’t seem to help himself. The union’s pension is ultimately a “luxury”. Whyte, of course, is against any bailout, because it’s “overly generous”. He taps into the private sector envy of public-sector pensions, and a bailout package that appears to be equivalent, and seems to think that if his RRSP has gone down, so should everyone else’s. [This seems to be the favoured sentiment amongst most of the union-haters who have posted on this topic in The National Post and The Globe and Mail.] In other words, union efforts are based on greed. Workers and their representatives are almost always cast as lazy, venal and undeserving. If they cause a company to collapse, it’s considered a moral failure. Damn those unions!

The bondholders are another story. These are the investors, by the way, who until recently would not agree to a settlement with GM (unlike the supplicating unions). In many ways, it is the bondholders who are responsible for GM’s current move into bankruptcy protection. But no matter. There is no greed here. At worst, their rational self-interest has been a matter of miscalculation. That is, it’s not moral at all; it’s a matter of business. Moreover, if their efforts are cast in moral terms, it’s with a different set of values than the one used against the unions. Rather than a list of vices drawn from the seven deadly sins, the morality of the bondholders is a matter of “conviction” as they struggle against the grasping unions and their government henchmen. So the NP portrays the bondholders as the victims of this tragedy, and reports (without a challenge) the following:


“The latest GM ‘offer’ sends a chilling message to all individual bondholders, not just those, like us, holding GM bonds: Contracts in America are no longer worth the paper they are written on,” said GM Bondholders Unite, a grass-roots group representing individual GM bondholders across the United States.

“The ‘offer’ to individual GM bond investors is ridiculously lopsided because it arbitrarily favors other groups, at the expense of the legal rights, under the U. S. Constitution, of hundreds of thousands of individual GM bond investors…. We aren’t asking for a bailout or a handout, just a fair deal. So we have no plans to back down.”


I guess we should forget that that a collective agreement is also a valid and legal contract, or that investment is the epitome of capitalist risk. But I digress. The conclusion I want to make is this: If you read and listen carefully, you can easily find the language of morality (good and bad) and/or amoral calculation that is interwoven into this particular narrative. And this is just the tip of the ideological iceberg. Cast your opponent as immoral, and yourself as objective and fair. Evil liberal, union-loving pinkos – bad; besieged, principled capitalists – good or at least “fair and balanced”, according to Fox News.

So, language can’t hide its intentions. The secrets are too good to keep quiet.



Posted by Colin Welch at 11:38 PM
Edited on: Sunday, May 16, 2010 9:45 PM
Categories: Canadian Politics, In a Philosophical Mood, The Good, The Bad, and the Stupid


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