From SJW to gammon: weaponising political language

Battle of Ideas festival 2018, Saturday 13 October, Barbican, London.


Politics has often comprised a battle over, and a battle using, language. For example, the distinction between ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ is as much an exercise in political mudslinging as it is a philosophical difference. However, with knee-jerk denunciations of President Trump and his supporters as ‘literal Nazis’, and Brexit voters as racist xenophobes, have the normal battles over political language morphed into something else?

Today, we seem to see not just the utilisation of existing terms to delegitimise opposition, but a proliferation of completely new terms as well. Old white men become ‘gammons’, women critical of feminism have ‘internalised misogyny’, students are ‘snowflakes’, and society is under siege from ‘whiteness’, ‘neoliberalism’, or ‘transphobia’. To even question the reality of such concepts is seen to be ‘erasing’ the marginalised. Meanwhile, new insults like TERF, SJW and ‘normie’ proliferate, with the aim of maligning the motives or deriding the views of those so labelled.

Aside from the nastiness of some contemporary political vocabulary, it is the sheer effort required to stay conversant in contemporary political terminology that attracts attention. It is not uncommon to find oneself completely lost – or completely unwelcome – in a political conversation if you don’t know how to speak the new political language. While this can prompt the demand to ‘get with it granddad’, it also marks a worrying evolution in the restriction of public discourse: an inability or unwillingness to speak the new code effectively rules one out of polite society.

However, campaigners are quick to point out the usefulness of new terms such as ‘gaslighting’ or ‘mansplaining’: they highlight imbalances in power and other injustices. But does such a discourse prove helpful to political progress, or further estrange ordinary people from an increasingly jargon-obsessed political and cultural elite? Is the proliferation of new political and cultural terms a good way to address serious political challenges, or an example of the weaponisation of language? Fundamentally, what’s the line between the natural evolution of political language, and the degeneration of political language into trendy slurs?

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, How Fear Works: culture of fear in the 21st century and Populism and the European Culture Wars

Sophia Gaston
director, Centre for Social and Political Risk, Henry Jackson Society; visiting research fellow, London School of Economics

Simon Lancaster
speechwriter; author, Winning Minds: secrets from the language of leadership and You Are Not Human: how words kill; TEDx speaker

Professor Dr Robert Pfaller
philosopher, University of Art and Industrial Design, Linz, Austria; author, (in German) Adult language: about its disappearance from politics and culture

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!