The Trump era and Brexit have brought with it terminology long consigned to the fringes, their potency is now respectably trumpeted by mainstream politicians.
On the eve of the UK parliament’s vote to reject or accept Theresa May’s initial Brexit deal, something strange happened which when analysed, and detached from the ongoing chaos of Brexit, emerges to be extremely profound and epitomises the interaction of ideology, narratives and language.
Boris Johnson, on January 14, in his opposition to Theresa May’s deal, proclaimed in the British parliament: “After two-and-half years of procrastination the public would accuse us, in this place, of deliberately setting out to frustrate their wishes and they would conclude that there was some plot by the deep-state to kill Brexit.”
In this comment, a senior mainstream politician, and a former mayor of London alludes to the existence of an entity, the deep state, which can usurp the democratic system through subterfuge.
Neither Boris Johnson nor US President Donald Trump, who continually claims the deep state is working against him, have ever defined exactly what the deep state is, yet the notion resonates with large segments of society who support both Brexit and Trump.
This is because the term triggers and simultaneously draws meaning from a powerful anti-immigration narrative, which presents the disillusioned working classes as an oppressed majority by a secret elite who, in collaboration with figures embedded in the political system, use immigration as a mechanism of control.
Thus, by using language in this way Boris Johnson is able to legitimise his position and gain support from those who believe in this narrative. Moreover, this is the very same narrative that gave substance to claims made by the leave campaign and Boris Johnson that Turkey’s entry into the EU is not only something to be feared but is also a reason for the UK to leave the EU.
The insinuation being that Turks would overrun the UK if they gained entry to the EU.
In these examples, the ability of a narrative to give legitimacy not only to an undefined term but also to a radical insinuation, illustrate the power narratives have.
Essentially a narrative is a story which is comprised of a protagonist (normally a force for good) who is on a mission to resolve a disruption caused by an antagonist (normally a malevolent force). The narrative is concluded when the antagonist eventually brings order to the chaos caused by the antagonist. Accordingly, the perception of any event can be influenced by how it is formulated into the above narrative structure.
The opening scenes of the 2017 film Hostiles well illustrate this, as it depicts a violent and graphic attack by Native Americans against a family of European settlers. The dynamics of the scene immediately position the brown Comanches as being the antagonists (the barbarians), and the white European settlers as the protagonists (the victims). What such a narrative formulation negates are the horrific events which provoked a barbaric response.
These same conventions of narrative framing, and the response they elicit also apply to narratives within society. For example, the anti-immigration narrative starts from immigrants landing on the shores and illegitimately taking the jobs of the indigenous population and consequently throwing their world into chaos.
What this type of narrative formulation ignores are the preceding and ongoing colonial and proxy wars that have caused instability in the countries of immigrants, and the inherent nature of the democratic capitalist system where corporations exploit migrant and native labour forces in a drive to maximise profits.
Moreover, narratives can draw from other socially embedded narratives to legitimise a specific narrative component. For example, the anti-immigration narrative relies heavily on the war on terror narrative and the negative view of Muslims it produced.
The inference being that terrorism is associated with Muslims including those living in Western countries and, as a result, through a particular skewed logic, this negative perception is extended to all types of immigration. Trump’s unfounded claim that terrorists are trying to enter the US by joining ‘Central American migrant caravans’ well illustrates this association.
To further understand the interaction between language and narratives, consider Jordan Peterson’s words to describe Islam’s Prophet. Peterson, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and has gained fame on YouTube, argues Islam is fundamentally different from other religions and while doing so refers to Prophet Muhammad as ‘a warlord’.
The term is pejorative in contrast to more neutral terms such as military commander or military leader, which Peterson could have used when describing the Prophet’s involvement in military campaigns.
Besides the reductionism and essentialism, both tools of Orientalism, Peterson’s use of the word ‘warlord’ triggers and simultaneously draws from negative narratives about Islam, namely that it is a malevolent force which causes terrorism. What is crucial to note is that solely through the use of language and its allusion to a prominent narrative, Peterson was able to establish a fundamental premise without having to prove it.
Another example that demonstrates this manipulative ability of language and its connection to narratives is the use of the word ‘terrorism’ in contrast to war. Through an institutionalised Western gaze, when violence is committed by a ‘Western democracy’ it signifies humanity, whereas violence committed by others in pursuing ideological causes, even in cases of resisting invasion and occupation, is considered to signify savagery.
Accordingly, the terms war and terrorism are used to mark this distinction. In the most extreme demonstration of this standard, the 1983 bombing of a US marines barracks in Beirut and the 2000 attack on the US navy’s destroyer, the USS Cole, are both classified as illegitimate acts of terrorism.
While the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, are considered to be legal and justifiable acts of war. Moreover, former British prime minister Winston Churchill and US president Harry Truman are not referred to as warlords or in similarly pejorative terms, but instead are viewed as commendable leaders despite the many civilians that were killed under their rule.
The last member in this triad is ideology, which can be defined as several unified beliefs, quantifiable or speculative, that affect the way adherents of those beliefs derive meaning and interact with the world. Beyond the effect of ideology on the individual, it also dictates the nature of governments and political movements in terms of the policies they produce.
However, because some policies would be unpalatable to segments of society, governments as well as political movements, formulate narratives which aid them in attaining support for their policies without having to reveal what they actually are.
A case in point is the narrative that Iraq’s government, led by late president Saddam Hussein, posed a significant threat to the US and the UK.
This narrative legitimised the invasion of Iraq and the expansion of US military power in the region, which were both documented ideological policies of neoconservatism during the Bush era. The use of narratives in this manner is comparable to what is referred to as Plato’s noble lie.
Within this paradigm, grand lies shield society from facing the reality of policies they may morally object to, and through the lie social support is attained, albeit on a false basis.
However, a pitfall of using a narrative in this manner is that once it is socially accepted as an evident truth, it can be used to influence people in a course different than that intended by those who initially propagated it.
Consider for example, the war on terror narrative, which made a causal link between Islam and terrorist acts, and thus led a great number of people in the Western world to infer Islam is a malevolent force. Even though this narrative produced support for various hot and cold wars and the enactment of laws that curtailed previously-held democratic values, the anti-Islam component has been appropriated by opposing political agendas.
For example, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee claimed, in May 2018, that Russian agents, as part of an agenda to influence the 2016 US election, used anti-Islam Facebook adds which they connected to issues relating to Trump and Clinton.
Similarly, according to an investigation published in November 2018 by Demos, a UK based research group, Russian internet agents propagated anti-Islam tweets which supported anti-immigration and anti-EU stances. In short, Russian agents used established negative narratives about Islam stemming from the West to destabilise Western politics.
Considering the above discussion, a critical mind should ask what is the real aim of influential figures like Boris Johnson and Jordan Peterson when they refer to such divisive and ungrounded narratives through their use of language? Could it be that they sincerely wish to alert their followers to the perils of the reputed ‘deep state’ and ‘Islamic terrorism’? Or could it be the case that the propagation of these narratives function to convolute the discourse, and thus draw attention away from the very visible power structures that are responsible for the disillusionment felt by the working classes?
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