home History and philosophy of science Structuralism and semiotics, denotation and connotation Genre, values and socialisation Substructure, superstructure, ideology and art Media analysis and Story Telling Psychology Social media analysis (post truth, fake news, media technology and fact-checking.)

 


Structuralism is about structure, the way language is structured and the way it shapes our experience of the world. We create what we call reality through the structure of our language, and structuralists want to know how, and what this implies. Semiotics (from the Greek semeion sign) studies language as a system of signs. Language is a system of signs expressing ideas. Vico, in The New Science (1725) argued that

When man perceives the world, he perceives without knowing it the superimposed shape of his own mind, and entities can only be meaningful (or 'true') in so far as they find a place within that shape

Another way to say this is that we all have certain stories or myths in out head that we use to explain the world to ourselves.  We learn them as we learn our language and ‘fit’ into our culture. The language we learn, including all the stories or myths create a structure in our minds that determines how we see the world from then on. It creates a shape that we can impose on the external world. We do this without realising it and assume that what we see after our act of interpretation, or shaping, is what is really out there. The nature,  ‘meaning’ and significance of the things we see, the relationship between them that makes them more or less important, threatening, useful, true etc , is something we impose upon them without knowing that we are doing so. 


Sapir and Whorf compared the way different languages worked to shape perception in their users. Sapir concluded:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of a particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached ..... we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.   - Selected Writings in Language, Culture and  Personality.

As Terence Hawkes put it:

We … invent the world we inhabit; we modify and reconstruct what is given. It follows that, implicated as we are in this gigantic, covert, collaborative enterprise, none of us can claim access to uncoded, 'pure' or objective experience of a 'real'. - Structuralism and Semiotics 1977

Allied to this is the problem of denotation and connotation. The denotation of a word is what it means according to the dictionary - a ‘student’ is one who studies, a ‘father’ is one who is related in a certain way. But that is not the full meaning as we receive or use it. Connotation is the emotional or cultural association that goes with the word. To one person ‘father’ means a comforting protector; to another it means a strict controller.  Mother might connote comforting or smothering.  To some people, a student is a young feckless person with no money who plays loud music. To others it means someone quiet and studious who would make a good tenants or lodger.  The connotation of ‘politician’ is often something like shady or dishonest or at least slippery. A diplomatic answer is careful and well balanced; a political answer is just shifty. Another way to put this is that we have ‘hurrah’ words and ‘boo’ words, and often shout one or the other automatically without looking at complex ideas of ‘meaning’.

The words ‘liberal’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ are interesting in this context. A ‘liberal’ regime or attitude is one that is lenient, fair, open-minded. That seems to be ‘good’.  But the word is used as an insult by those who think of it as woolly, weak or too middle-of-the-road. ‘Moderation’ might be seen as ‘good’ but always being stuck in the middle when we need firm action is seen as ‘bad’.  With an upper case L, the Liberal Party claim to represent liberal values but this is either good or bad depending who you ask.

A ‘cosmopolitan’ town is one with a mixed population and the energy and choice that goes with it.  That is good unless you think it means too many immigrants, and think ‘nationalism’ is a virtue that goes with immigration control - more of ‘us’ and fewer of ‘them’.

Connotations vary with individuals and groups, so a word will be good in one context or group but bad in another. It is possible, with the right propaganda, to attach connotations to a word so it starts to sound ‘bad’ instead of ‘good’ or vice versa, but each of us grows up with a set of connotations that will determine the real meaning we give to any sentence. Thus ‘he has progressive / liberal opinions’ will be praise or condemnation according to connotations attached during our upbringing.

‘Libertarian’, of course, is quite different to 'liberal', and might be seen as a form of anarchism. In both cases, there is a heavy emphasis on the right of an individual to act without any government interference in their lives. Anarchists tend to emphasise our duty to act responsibly as a collective so we don’t need governing from above. If you invite them to a meeting they willingly clear up afterwards, but won’t like being told to. Libertarians can be either left or right wing and both emphasise the dangers of allowing the state to control an individual, but in the USA it is more often a right-wing movement against gun control, Obamacare etc. A libertarian might emphasise individual rights but refuse to acknowledge group rights (e.g. women’s rights) if it means having rules imposed to protect the group. In that sense it is a negative meaning for ‘rights’. You can have them but you have to protect yourself when you exercise them. Libertarian sounds like a better word because it comes from liberty whereas anarchy has negative connotations because it is used colloquially, assuming lack of imposed rules = chaos.

Populism has been characterised as offering simple solutions to complex problems - being popular with a crowd by offering slogans that attract them. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are examples of a populist politician - superficial analysis tied to loud cheers at rallies, mainly because superficial analysis is more popular than hard thought and difficult choices. That statement implies that many voters are easily swayed and lack judgement. See below.


Democracy left, right and centre.


Two very difficult terms will be ‘democratic’ and ‘socialist’.  Democracy is a simple ‘hurrah’ word - always a good thing, whatever it means. Socialism is either ‘hurrah’, ‘boo’.

We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two. -  E M Forster

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. - Winston Churchill

One of the more intriguing results of the vote on leaving the EU was the attitudes displayed towards the voters once the results were known. Some of those who wanted to remain argued that the Leave voters acted in ignorance, unaware of what they were voting for, so the vote was in some way invalid. In fact, since the result, it appears many of the claims made by the Leave camp were untrue and a number of votes have admitted they had no idea it as going to be that unpleasant or expensive. But is that the point? Can we argue that a vote made in ignorance, or in response to lies, is invalid?  How can we apply that rule to ordinary elections?  It could be argued that some candidates or parties lie to voters at every election, and certainly some people vote without a fully informed appreciation of all the issues and potential consequences.  So democracy is at best a vague hope that at least some people know the truth and know what they are voting for. How many are enough? It may also be the case that democracy is strengthened by voter education. Whatever we mean by that.
Does democracy actually work and how is the word abused in elections?

We might describe it as a system of government by all eligible citizens ( note 1) through representatives who are elected to make decisions on their behalf. You get to choose your representative.

You have to be registered. How many people eligible to register don’t actually bother is a difficult question, but within one month of Theresa May calling a snap election in 2017 more than two million people suddenly applied. A quarter of a million under 25 year olds applied in a single day. So one element of democracy that can be manipulated is to make sure lots off your potential supporters get registered, and one element that can distort a ‘democratic’ result is if a certain segment of the population is proportionately more or less likely to register. 

Then, of course, you have to bother to vote. In the 2017 general election 31.2% of registered voters didn’t. The referendum on EU membership was decided by a 3.8% majority but 27.8% didn’t bother to vote at all. In local elections turnout can be less than 30%. So democracy is rule of a variable section of the population, and never more than that. Those who organise efficiently to harvest votes can make a big difference.
And how do votes get counted?

In the last general election the conservatives got 42.3% of the votes cast. So a majority of the votes wanted to avoid a conservative government, but they didn’t get what they want. Sometimes this happens because the opposition is split, sometimes because of the uneven numbers in a given constituency. Conservatives got 317 MPs for their 42.3%/ Labour, on 40% of the popular vote, got 262 MPs. Liberals, for their 7.4%, got 12.
There are other systems. The single transferable vote gives weight to second choices so you get a government with the least objections to it. Proportional representation takes in all the votes then hands out seats in government according to the proportion of the vote each party got, after which they all manoeuvre to make up a workable majority, often in coalition.

In our ‘first past the post ‘system’, a government can be formed by a party a majority of voters did not want. Then a Cabinet dominated by a strong Prime Minister can behave more-or-less how they choose for 5 years. That can be an ‘elected dictatorship’.
Other systems might be more likely to lead to a coalition. That might sound more ‘democratic’ but suppose two large parties get 45% and 48% while a small party gets the rest - 7%. Added to 45%, that allows one party with 52% to form the government. But they small party holds the balance of power and thus has far more influence than the voters asked for.     

Whatever you think of the various ways to count votes, for now what matters is to remember that how you permit and then count votes is a political decision and ‘democracy’ comes in many forms, all of them imperfect, some of which we may be able to improve with education.
Meanwhile, the word is often abused.

Is the Democratic Republic of North Korea a democracy? Was the German Democratic Republic? Democratic Republic of Congo? People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka?

Your answers in each case will depend on what factors you include and how you weight them, but simply having a vote is in itself a small element of the equation. It sometimes seems that the more people use the word “democracy” the less likely it is that ordinary citizens actually have any influence on how they are governed. And even if you are free to cast it how you like, and most people vote to do so, there is the vexed question of where you get the information, ideas and logic you use to make up your mind.

We like to think or ourselves as rational beings who can use reason to form a judgement. But all reasoning starts with an initial premise, a statement or assumption from which we move outwards. Whilst our stages of reasoning might be fair, our premises are often inherited and may be unconscious. For example:


All Scotsmen are careful with money
He is Scottish
Therefore he will be careful with money


The reasoning is logical but the premise is a false stereotype. But how hard is it to reject something that everyone around you has always believed and reinforces with jokes?  What matters in political debate is often not what is true but people wish to believe or can afford to believe. That is why it is hard to shift political loyalties with logical argument, and why other, less obvious or honest means are often used instead.

Very often, these values tied to basic terms are inherited and used uncritically.   

‘British’ can be difficult. In arguments about immigration some people use it to mean legal rights of citizenship but others attach connotations of race (British = white or Christian). Arguments about teaching ‘British Values’ in schools tend to assume we mean values like fairness and tolerance, but this implies that the Belgians or Irish might be unfair and intolerant and the British uniquely civilised. What they really mean is that some forms of pressure - families or private schools - are teaching values we consider dangerous. That gets translated as Beware of Islamic Schools and then into Beware of Muslims. Which is, of course, very unBritish (unfair and intolerant). 

‘Socialism’ is particularly knotty. We could define it as a theory that the means of producing and distributing goods should be in the hands of society as a whole. We, as a society, have a collective responsibility to each other and we should make sure that water, electricity, railways, the benefit system, tax system, price controls etc are controlled by and work for the benefit of the UK citizens, not for large international firms of small powerful groups.

It is distinct from communism as that is collective (communal) ownership whereas socialism can allow private ownership so long as the private owner does not work for the disadvantage of citizens - e.g. by acting dishonestly or fixing very high prices. Where they get confused is that communism usually meant the state owning everything on behalf of the citizens, often within a one-party state, so governments owned everything and citizens lost the means to influence them. ‘State socialism’ was a term that described that form of government ownership. Democratic socialism is often used as a term in opposition to state socialism, making governments accountable within a state where citizens have the rights to vote for any party. It is based on a capitalist system of private ownership, but regulated to keep it behaving for the common good.

The degree of state ownership is one argument, e.g. should we nationalise the railways?  The degree to which any government is accountable to voters is a quite different argument.

What tends to happen in UK political debate is that those who disapprove of any nationalisation and favour a great deal of freedom for private firms to behave as they wish tend to use ‘socialism’ as a ‘boo’ word to frighten voters, with connotations of state control that mean ‘loss of freedom’, and often equate it with communism to frighten people away.

Those who favour socialism argue that giving large firms too much freedom actually reduces the freedom of the voter, as they can’t vote for who runs the firms or how they behave. Then it has connotations of ‘control’ tied to ‘fairness’ that are favourable.

Similarly, moderate and extremist are, of course, relative terms. Moderate and centre ground are usually hurrah words, extremist a boo word. But what if the centre moves? In the UK you could argue that public opinion moved to the right under Margaret Thatcher so that what used to be right wing became centre ground, with centre ground, moderate ideas suddenly becoming left wing. It is now considered radical, extreme, left wing, socialist etc to want to raise tax to pay for public services. The British tax rate is 20% up to £45, 000 per year, 40 % up to £150,000 and 45% above that.  In Norway the lowest rate is 39%. It is over 56% in Sweden and over 60% in Denmark. We find those figures staggeringly high because we are used to paying less, but in the 1950s and 1960s the top rate of tax in the UK was 90%. That was considered ‘normal’. In 1971 it was still 75%.

Voters rarely think with a knowledge of history, even as far back as their parents’ day. To lack that perspective is to lack judgement.

notes:

1 - http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/faq/voting-and-registration/who-is-eligible-to-vote-at-a-uk-general-election

genre. values and socialisation