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Political Language Essay

Language is the life blood of politics. Political power struggles, and the legitimisation of political policies and authorities occurs primarily through discourse and verbal representations. Power can either be exercised through coercion or what US commentator Walter Lippman termed in the 1930s the manufacture of consent. Largely unable, and hopefully unwilling, to coerce; political authorities in so called democratic polities often need to manufacture consent in order to undertake their agendas.

While this most obviously concerns relations between a government and its wider public, this process has profound effects on the workings inside governments and is an important aspect of socialisation into governmental work cultures. Put simply the manufacture of consent is a language based process of ideological indoctrination. While being astonishingly comprehensive, it is a remarkably subtle process. Discourse carries the very assumptions under which the things it alludes to are known and ordered in the context in which it is used.

In concrete terms this means that the content of political language contains the very rationale by which it is to be framed, defined, understood and acted upon. Commonly this produces the manufacture of consent. Political language, as Michael Geis points out in The Language of Politics, conveys both the linguistic meaning of what is said and the corpus, or a part of it, of the political beliefs underpinning any given statement (p7).

Whether circulating inside or outside governments this means that political discourse transmits and unconsciously reinforces the ideological foundations and the ways of knowing of the dominant political authorities. Applied to government agencies this means that the language of its official texts contains the means by which things are known and understood within these agencies. This means that official documents are shaped according to the way in which things are known and understood in the context in which they are primarily employed.

What is included, excluded and how the document is structured is largely determined by these methods of knowing, understanding, and what these are ideologically deemed to encompass. None of this is to necessarily say that the contents of a document are untrue. In the case of Randolf Paul’s report nothing alleged in it has been refuted. However its structure reflects the prizing of particular modes of linear rational thought, empiricism, and ideas of objectivity characteristic of the US bureaucracy.

What he represented may well have been far less straightforward than how he presented it. The events Paul portrayed may well have included other significant happenings that were not included because they were either not recognised as such within the knowledge structures of the US bureaucracy, or because they may have contentiously reflected unfavourably on the ideological principles underlying the US government. On the flip side official documents can be used to identify the ideological principles of a government agency and the political authorities it represents.

Where there is conflict in political discourse, there is conflict about the ideological and philosophical assumptions underlying political authority. Official texts, and their structures should be analysed to uncover the assumptions of knowledge and ideology at the foundations of the authority producing the text. According to Foucault, the most useful question in such an analysis is something along the lines of ‘ how is it that one particular statement appeared instead of another statement’ .

Further reading : Burton, F., & Carlen, P. , Official Discourse : On Discourse Analysis, Government Publications, Ideology, and the State, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1979. Fairclough, N. , Language and Power, Longman, London, 1989. Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon Books, New York, 1972. Geis, M. , The Language of Politics, Spring – Verlag, New York, 1987. HOME DOCUMENT http://teaching. arts. usyd. edu. au/history/hsty3080/3rdYr3080/Callous%20Bystanders/language. html v.


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