When we think of current political crises, we think of Brexit. Trump. Anti-semitism. Nationalism. Housing. The list goes on. Never, however, is mention made of the crisis which serves as the root for most of the above, and many more: that of communication.
Of course, it’s always been observed that the political bubble operates with a different language to the rest of the country, but only in recent years has it become clear just how damaging this is.
Just one example is the latest report from the pressure group Rethinking Economics, on the employability of economics graduates, finding that they are ‘lacking in three key areas’: they are unable to apply their knowledge to real-world problems, they do not have the ability to think critically, and, crucially, they cannot explain economic ideas without jargon. As Bloomberg very succinctly put it, ‘nobody knows what economics graduates are trying to say.’
Reports such as these, however, are merely a component of the wider pandemic which has gripped politics, one which would be familiar to the readers and writers of this site. Journalists, politicians, economists, bankers, and so forth, are all out-of-touch elitists, speaking with posh words in posh accents which bear no resemblance to the country at large. As a result, the reins of power have slipped to those claiming to represent the everyday person. Farage. Trump. Johnson.
Do not be complacent. Words matter. The manner in which an individual or a group expresses themselves defines their image, which establishes how they are then perceived by others. When economists, bankers, politicians, journalists, and many more talk technocratically, after centuries of perpetuating the belief that the upper classes of power are reserved for the upper classes of society, is it any wonder that people are finally turning away, decisively, and in droves?
Some may question whether linguistics is a particularly pressing issue, but unless an urgent change is enacted, this societal divide will grow deeper and more dangerous. Let us consider economics. Evidently, it is no longer sustainable to depict it as a series of mathematical truths or to explain them in such a jargon-laden manner. When something, be it an entire profession or a small group, is presented in a way only immediately understandable to those raised with a steady stream of textbooks, the obvious result is that most are blocked out.
Many do not feel it’s a field they could work in, let alone begin to comprehend it. They come to see it as the preserve for the elite but perhaps trust them nonetheless (there must be a reason they’re in the job, right?). That is until their choices come back to bite. Wages stagnate. Jobs get lost. Things don’t seem to get better like they had promised.
So, you finally tell them where to go (likely using more colourful language) and listen to the people who speak with a little more accessibility. They tell you that all will be well, but only if you do exactly what they say. And you trust them, because, for whatever reason, you can relate to them.
And, at that point, what other choice have you got?
The conclusion of this story should be well-known to pundits by now, but it need not be written in ink. Figures from across the ‘liberal elite’ should strengthen efforts to appear approachable and interesting to voters and improve accessibility to their professions.
History is littered with examples of where this has gone wrong (see: the premiership of Theresa May), but only because it has been handled poorly, thinking that being relatable means watching Love Island or cracking constant quips and jokes. Really, relatability begins with the acknowledgement that this communicative divide only exists as long as society allows it to. There must be a sense that economists, bankers, politicians, journalists, are not the other, but exactly the same as the rest of us.
This can be done and done well. Our Future Our Choice, the anti-Brexit youth campaign, is particularly adept at coming across as likeable and approachable, taking the big issues of Brexit and whittling them down to easy, eye-catching slogans which still get the full story across.
In the arts, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton has been praised for reinvigorating interest in American history, and Alexander Hamilton himself, through expert lyricism and hip-hop. Imagine how fun it would be if that’s how all future government speeches are written? (Note: that was a joke. I think).
Elsewhere, charities such as Economy are working to open economics up for the 21st Century. The charity organises communal classes in places like Manchester, aimed at breaking down the image barriers which economics suffers from and improving economic literacy. While this work is brilliant, it is a shame that it is relegated to charities and private groups, when government should take the lead to ensure that the people know what they’re actually saying.
Right now, the way to overcome our linguistic divide is by making personal improvements in our speech here and there to pave a jargon-free path. We should emphasise the importance of social skills amongst those who yearn for the world of politics. We should campaign for improved political and economic education at school, dismissing the belief that they are matters only for tight-nosed adults and must be learned independently.
A divided society is no help to anyone, particularly one where the divide derives from the most fundamental of elements: speech. Words matter, after all.