political discourse

Political Discourse: Profanity and the Power of Words

In the wake of Leanne Wood’s censure by the Welsh Assembly for the use of obscene language in a tweet, Caragh Medlicott asks if it’s one rule for one and one rule for others.

Questions of free speech have become particularly fraught in the age of social media. With rising tensions in British politics, alarms have been sounded regarding the use of inappropriate language. The wider context of conversations is, obviously, crucial – and one which often gets muddled up with expectations of properness. It’s an issue which came to a head when Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood was formally reprimanded by her fellow Assembly Members for swearing on Twitter. The context in this particular case was that Wood, a former leader of her party, called a blogger an ‘arsehole’ on Twitter. The blogger in question is a prominent voice in right-wing Welsh nationalist circles. He’s also known for his controversial online comments regarding gender, race, disabled people and the LGBT+ community.

37 AMs backed the sanction against Wood, with 12 voting against and four abstaining, and this verdict leads us into odd territory. The official statement from Standards Commissioner Sir Roderick Evans is that Wood broke the code of conduct for AMs (it’s worth noting that this is the same man who did not find the ‘buxom barmaids’ video produced by Wood’s fellow AM Gareth Bennett to be sexist). The ruling implies that, regardless of context, politicians should not be swearing on Twitter.

If Wood had transformed into some kind of politician-turned-Gordon-Ramsay type, throwing F-bombs every other sentence, perhaps I’d be inclined to agree. But Wood’s tweet wasn’t that – it was primarily a defence of Plaid AM Delyth Jewell, the target of the inciting post. Wood’s response came from a place of frustration, certainly. Yes, the tweet was a human moment – not a carefully curated, comms-approved social statement. But in the landscape of British politics, that’s pretty refreshing. Yes, it featured a marginal swear word – but more importantly it represented a sentiment; that Wood is opposed to online sexism. To me, responding to such bullying with mildly worded frustration isn’t something worthy of reprimanding. If politicians are meant to pretend they exist in a pre-watershed universe, I can think of more than a few who haven’t got the memo. 

The blogger, for his part, responded by confirming his own prevalent sexism with the timeless and steel-clad defence of: ‘I am no misogynist, ask any woman who knows me’. The fact that Jones exclusively attacks women who don’t know him is, apparently, irrelevant. 

Wood’s reprimanding is aptly timed. As we hurtle towards the Brexit Halloween deadline, more than a few choice words have been uttered in parliamentary settings. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a man made up more of bluster and rhetoric than skin and bone. Even a casual news-viewer will have heard his ongoing description of the Benn Act as the ‘Surrender Act’ as he bristles about ‘no more dither and delay’. While Johnson has certainly raised a few eyebrows, his language choices have yet to instigate any official telling off. Not when he suggested that the best way to honour Jo Cox was to get Brexit done, not when he refused to apologise for that, and not when he referred to the ‘hemp-smelling bivouacs’ of Extinction Rebellion protestors. His response to Paula Sherriff MP’s plea that he moderate his language – ‘I’ve never heard such humbug’. 

Of course, these are just a handful of the comments to have cropped up in the few months that Johnson has been PM. Indeed, he has a rich history of language that is unthinking and frequently discriminatory. His ‘slip of the tongue’ as Foreign Secretary had dire consequences for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the detained British-Iranian citizen who was called to a second court case after Johnson’s comments. 

The point here isn’t to compare this to the Leanne Wood case and say, ‘look, Boris Johnson is even worse’. But to ask, whose words have led to more, real-world damage? After all, that is surely the measure of troubling language, the reason a ‘code of conduct’ exists in the first place. 

The words we send out into the public sphere create ripples, and the more high profile the speaker, the bigger those ripples are. With politicians in particular, a tone is set in what is and isn’t okay to say. If a high-profile politician makes racist comments then, inevitably, members of the public will feel validated in doing the same. Not to mention that offensiveness exists upon a scale. Some will be offended by Wood using the word ‘arsehole’ on Twitter, and some will be offended by the Prime Minister using a murdered MP’s name to further his own political agenda. But there’s no denying the two things register at very different levels. For example, both Jo Cox’s sister and husband were outspoken about the hurt caused by Johnson’s comments (not that this prompted an apology).

I doubt anyone could substantially argue that Wood’s ‘areshole’ comment incited a wave of online bullying, but Johnson’s language in parliamentary debates? His continual description of the Benn Act as a ‘Surrender Act’? Well, not only has that crept into the language of the public, it’s already been linked to a rise in hate crime.

On a global scale this debate has been raging for a good while. Most of us have become all too used to the outrageous language of President Donald Trump. Free speech and political correctness is a never-ending debate – one which can be easily divided into the camps of right and left. The right frequently cite political correctness as a form of censorship, while the left argues it’s a means of striving for a safe and inclusive language. The real argument lies in that pivotal question: where do we draw the line? We’re free to speak, but not without consequences. We also hope, and arguably deserve, to see exemplary behaviour from our elected representatives. Until a universal code of conduct is established and upheld, we’re going to struggle. It’s a shame, then, that this is an impossible feat.

Most historians point to Ancient Greece as the first example of democractic society. It’s likely no coincidence that it was in this same period we saw the rise of ‘the sophists’ – an ancient group who offered to teach people for money. For all intents and purposes, a sophist’s education centred around language; they taught people to become masters of persuasion. Essentially training their pupils to use rhetoric to talk themselves out of sticky situations (many of which related to legal disputes). 

Today, this same technique is employed by politicians all across the globe. They use political lingo and spiel to disguise clear meaning and hide genuine sentiment. Of all the faults of political language, this is perhaps the biggest – a trope far more troubling than the use of ‘arsehole’ on social media. Because under the cloak of rhetoric, real decisions with real consequences are hidden. This rhetoric is how our leaders evade accountability. There’s no perfect answer to the language debate. But perhaps we should start by being a little less outraged by mild profanity, and a little more concerned about the combative language and rhetoric alive at the most senior levels of UK politics.