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Lineker Lessons: Language, Responsibility, Governance

Public AffairsCommunications
Lineker Lessons: Language, Responsibility, Governance
Mark Thorpe

Every now and then a “cultural happening” can serve to shine a light on what, as a society, we are in danger of becoming. The Gary Lineker “situation”, and the furore it set in motion, is one such cultural happening. What Lineker did, almost certainly inadvertently, was to open-up the body politic and society to reveal dangerously toxic innards. This toxicity is rooted in language; a language that is designed to incite emotion, rather than convey truth, or even to create meaningful and productive discussion. If unchecked, our language is at risk of leading us into dangerous social, cultural and political spaces.

Lesson 1: Everything starts somewhere

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.

George Orwell

Although Lineker’s comparison of UK Government language to that of 1930s Germany was exaggerated, we should not lose sight of the fact that the language of Nazism developed and intensified over time. There was an evolution of language, which became ever-more extreme, despicable and violent.

The reality is that language is never still; it is always taking us somewhere. Language is not just a tool for communication, it is also the primary way in which the abominable becomes acceptable. Abomination always starts somewhere and usually in language. As George Orwell knew well, it is the twists we give to language through which new meanings and new realities are made.

As a nation, we have seen our language become filled with anger, hostility and an unrelenting negativity. There is a constant process of othering and the use of a language “kit” that empowers those who would wish us to look elsewhere for the problems we face.

As a society, we are permitting, and glorying in, a language rooted more in hyperbole than truth. Language is used to achieve short-term gain with little or no responsibility as to what such language is “doing” to us. We are also failing to learn the lessons of history. From slavery to genocide, language has been used to imprison and to justify abominations.

Read Mark Thorpe’s argument for why truth really matters in our society

Lesson 2: We are what we say

Myths which are believed in tend to become true.

George Orwell

Language is a cornerstone of historical analysis. It is in and through language that historians can make sense of lost worlds, forgotten cultures, and the cultural truths that shaped civilizations. Our problem is that we see history as behind us, a retrospective of less accomplished times. The reality is that history is also now; it is what we are making it to be, and our language will be an important script for historians of the future to examine.

What would a historian of “now” make of it all? Most likely that “it” was a time of rage, hostility, insecurity and crisis. A time in which increasing scarcity, coupled with the erosion of borders, led to an agenda based on the reassertion of nationhood. The historian would probably look outside the UK for confirmation of the thesis. It would be a fruitful search; with clear evidence, through the analysis of language, that similar patterns were repeating themselves across geographies. The same historian would be able to identify the language journey – from softer to harsher – and see the social damage wrought by such a transition.

Such an historian would also look at our myths and our metaphors, both rooted in our language, and how they shaped the realities of the day. As an outside observer looking back at “now”, the historian would see our mistakes in a way we rarely can. More importantly, they could see the causal connections and the points at which “it all started to go wrong”. Future generations would read the historian’s books and shake their heads. “Why?” they would ask.

There would be the slow realisation that they/we became prisoners of their/our own language.

Lesson 3: Humility is essential

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

George Orwell

The response to Gary Lineker’s now infamous tweet was instant. Condemnation allowed no time for consideration. Much was done, much too quickly. The result was chaotic and turbulent. Above all, there was an evident inability to suspend the desire for ownership of the moral high-ground and consider how we had reached such a point and why. Politics and social commentary were once again intrinsically confrontational. There was no other option but to win or lose. The result? In reality everyone loses.

If we don’t change our ways (and our ways of communicating) then such is an enduring and long-term reality. Being humble is the antidote; humility makes us much better than we are.

Lesson 4: Make language matter more

When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.

George Orwell

There is a desperate need, in politics and society, for us to be cautious about the ways our language is evolving. Language is not an after-thought, it is the very substance of who and what we are and will become. We can be much better than we are. In times of crisis, humanity can find a way.

There are six things we can all do (and advise our clients to do also) in order to reverse the direction in which society, politics and culture seem to be heading:

  1. Choose your words carefully – recognise that what we say and write now contributes to a future that may be impacted greatly by the language we use.
  2. Encourage humility – recognising our own limitations helps us to be more compassionate.
  3. Welcome difference – differences of experience and opinion help make society stronger, not weaker, if they are embraced as “normal” part of the fabric of our everyday life.
  4. Pause for breath – immediate reaction has become everything, but simply pausing and reflecting can make big difference to the intensity of situations.
  5. Be emotionally intelligent – inflammatory rhetoric gains attention but destroys social glue, as well as the integrity of politics and society. Becoming more aware of our reactive emotions, and better in-tune with our more deliberative emotional intelligence, will serve us well.
  6. Show empathy – how would you feel if it was you on the “other side”? Let that sink in.

Emily Luscombe reflects on the power of language in her Scratching My Bald Head series

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