The problem with Liberal Democrat vocabulary

The power which control over language gives to channel thoughts and direct actions was most famously set out in George Orwell’s 1984. It’s a recurring theme of the battle for equality too. It can be trivialised into superficial renamings that bring little other than embarrassment.

More mundanely, the choice of shared language is often an insight into how an organisation operates and changing it can also be a route to changing how the organisation operates.

Consider the use by Liberal Democrats of “campaigning” as the default term to describe what happens on doorsteps, through letterboxes and in social media timelines. Apply the word “campaigning” to a person and it’s meant as a compliment. It suggests something grand, a positive attempt to improve the world in some way.

Yet a more accurate term to describe much of what passes as campaigning in the Liberal Democrats is “electioneering” – where the objective is simply the accumulation of political support ready to be turned into votes at election time. A worthy objective for a political party, yes, but also a much narrower activity than campaigning. Using campaigning to describe electioneering disguises what else could, and should, be happening.

Likewise the use of “bar chart” as if it’s an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Bar charts are powerful motivators of tactical voting, which is an important part of how you put together a winning electoral coalition. But they contain no free-standing mystical power. They are a powerful way to illustrate one part of a tactical voting message, not a substitute for the whole.

When you stop talking about putting bar charts on leaflets and start talking about putting tactical voting messages on leaflets, you’re freed up from thinking they’re the only route even needed.

It’s time we changed the way we used our words. What other words would you add to this list?


7 responses to “The problem with Liberal Democrat vocabulary”

  1. Fighting. to answer the question.

    Fighting implies causing debilitating damage to some opposing force, process or party. In the present climate it has a negative connotation, personally the term fighting conjurers up images of picket lines. Working would be a more positive substitute.

    Best wishes

  2. “Deliverer.”

    We’re often guilty at pigeonholing the precious people we’ve convinced into helping us into one role. I often wonder how many would knock on doors or even stand for election if they were encouraged. Perhaps “volunteer” or “activist” would be better?

  3. Fighting – that’s the word I always cringe at when I see it in the press – it brings up a mental image of someone – a man- with his fits clenched and ready to hit someone – not the way I deal with things at all!!

  4. I am perturbed by the constant abuse of the term ‘liberal’, especially by our media. It is frequently used as a term of abuse, especially by those at the opposite extremes. ‘Liberal Leftie’ and ‘Liberal Elite’ have recently been added to ‘woolly liberal’ etc..
    It is time that we made greater efforts to publicly define ‘Liberal’ in the round and wholesome terms that we believe in, or else think of another term and title for our Party.

  5. Don’t know who “us” is in Joe’s comment. Probably just him. Any definition of “social liberal” or even more “social democrat” is disputable, but social liberals are as devolutionist and as committed to individual liberty as other liberals. For social democrats neither of these things is a top priority. Social democracy no longer means believing in a democratic society (which is Liberal), but trying to reduce inequalities in a gradualist way through existing democratic institutions. Social Liberals believe that in empowering people we need to empower free communities and that the state can be a help as much as a hindrance to personal liberty. For me it definitely includes an understanding of the importance of community in self-realisation, something “economic liberals” tend to marginalise.

    On a different point, I absolutely agree about “campaigning”. This must include winning elections, but the narrowing of the term to often mean just electioneering points to how the party’s horizons have narrowed. Similarly, the word “community politics” has often come to mean taking up local issues and showing voters we can sort them out: ambition to change the system and to empower people other than Focus teams is forgotten.

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