Metonymy, metaphor and the violent language of politics

I am struck by the number of violent words that are being used by the government and some economists. Words like ‘cut’ and ‘slash’ tend to be used in relation to public spending and conjure up images of evisceration – a bloody mess; a possible shambles. There are other words too, like ‘smash’ and ‘break’ which tend to be used when referring to social housing and benefits. These words don’t appear casually, they are employed to achieve an effect. Make no mistake, this is a linguistic form of violence.

While these words are used in a seemingly metaphorical fashion, the effect of such words can have a devastating effect on the body. The body that I refer to here is that of the public or, as I would refer to it, the body-politic, which can be read as a single mass body. This concept of regarding the public as a physical entity is not new, it has its origins in the respective works of Foucault, Butler et al. The latter proposed that certain words, such as racist or sexist language, can have an effect on the body of the person being addressed. These are violent words that can wound and whose effects can linger long after the event.

But in reality there is more than one single body-politic: the social classes and cultural groups also form bodies-politic. We can see that the effect of cutting, slashing, smashing, blasting and beating is more likely to have an effect on those who have little or no protection from such assaults. These are the people who are the unemployed, the working class, the poor, the disabled, the working poor, social housing tenants…the list goes on.

We also see that some bodies-politic are feared more than others; this is particularly true in the case of the working classes who, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were referred to as the ‘masses’. These masses were feared precisely because of their latent power: an unorganized working class is easy to manipulate, while the organized and more educated working classes are harder to control. Hence such masses usually have to be ‘pacified,’ ‘checked’, ‘smashed’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘expunged’. Whenever the state feels that it has been infected by something deadly, a ritual cleansing of the body takes place expelling from it all that is unwanted and absorbing that which it finds useful. This process often takes place on a cultural level: the banning of certain films, works of art or types of music that are either absorbed (recuperated) into, or are otherwise expelled from the system entirely.

Initially when packages of economic measures are being proposed they are referred to as ‘medicine’ (I outlined this in an earlier blog), with the team of ministers and economists acting as ‘physicians’ and ‘surgeons’  who must administer much-needed treatment to the ‘patient’. But suddenly it appears that the ‘patient’ requires radical surgery; some form of  invasive intervention that could possibly seriously disable or kill the patient. But the pain, so they tell us, is necessary.

With words such as ‘cut’ and ‘slash’ are adjectives applied to them that are no less visceral. We are told the ‘cuts’ will be ‘savage’, ‘brutal’ and ‘deep’.  The word ‘deep’ particularly suggests that the ‘patient’ could quite possibly bleed to death. This is the language of a frenzied axe-wielding murderer, not that of the caring physician! This is not surgery, friends. This is butchery!

Perhaps today’s politicians could learn a thing or two from the character Chauncey Gardiner (Chance the gardener) in the film Being There (1979). Gardiner (who is quite literally a simpleton gardener), played by Peter Sellers, is mistaken by the US President for an economic sage, whose comments on tending his garden are interpreted for economic insights. I can see how horticultural language might be easier on the ear, but would the effects on the body-politic really be altered if different kinds of metaphors were used?

Probably not. We love our violence.

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