Language is a powerful thing. I learned the truth of this very quickly when, fifteen years ago, I moved from Germany to Scotland and did my best to embrace the culture of new home and the language spoken by the people around me. My experience is that living with two different languages also means living in two different spheres of thinking, an observation other immigrants will confirm.
There is a lot of agreement in linguistic research that the use of words, expressions and metaphors shapes the way we think and act at least to some degree. In his famous quote George Orwell went even further and concluded: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.“
The close connection between language and thinking often springs to mind when I compare the Scotland I first got to know with what it is today. The country has changed a lot over the past years and some of these changes are echoed in the usage of certain words. For example, after devolution Scotland was governed for a number of years by the Scottish Executive. Only after the election of an SNP government this was changed into Scottish Goverment. The previous term is now almost forgotten. In the years before the independence referendum Scots were just Scots. The words unionists and separatists were hardly used, at least not in the context of daily Scottish politics or as a valid description of a fellow citizen. Yet today many Scots are more or less used to thinking about themselves and others in these terms. Independence supporters often think of other Scots, who disagree with them, as traitors and use this word freely. One derogatory term, which I had never heard before and which leaves a particularly nasty aftertaste, appeared recently in connection with non-SNP politicians: quisling.
The nationalist movement brought about two new word creations: Yesser and Westmonster. The first describes a person who supports independence, the latter vilifies the Scottish nationalists’ arch enemy: the UK government in Westminster. Only a short while ago the very concept of both expressions wasn’t even born yet. Now they are part of the language.
Until a few years ago, the word Scotland stood for the country as a whole, for its people, its culture and its history. Now Scotland is synonymous with an all-consuming political idea, for an anticipated projection of the nationalists’ agenda which is vaguely associated with something more progressive, bolder, fairer and, well, independent. The word Scotland has become fair game and is used as a template to be filled as desired. This imaginary Scotland now exists in many heads, probably in countless different shapes and forms. Yet the constant repetition of the same buzz words and phrase patterns will ensure that all these different Scotland versions share the SNP’s core vision as their lowest common denominator. Say Scotland and mean SNP – mean SNP and say Scotland. A few years ago, the word Scotland meant more or less the same for most Scots. Today two Scots might use the same word but have two entirely different things in mind.
Conflating Scotland and the SNP
Similarly, when the nationalists promise that SNP MPs will make sure that “Scotland’s voice is heard clearer and louder than ever before“ in the House of Commons, they conflate Scotland with SNP voters. The voice of Scotland consists of a multitude of pitches but, if the polls prove to be true and the vast majority of the 59 Scottish seats are taken by the nationalists, all we are going to hear will be the drone of the SNP.
This “voice“ is indeed making a big noise, not least because it now goes hand in hand with another buzz word: balance of power. Not so long ago SNP propaganda portrayed power as something that was in the firm grip of the elusive Westmonster. In the nationalists’ narrative there never was and there never is enough of the stuff in Holyrood and the Scottish people are powerless by definition. But now, with the prospect of wiping out all non-SNP parties in Scotland and effectively putting an end to pluralism in this part of the UK, power is within our grasp – or so we’re told.
Hence, after years of talking up the Scots’ perceived powerlessness, the nationalists now offer real power to the electorate like a drug dealer selling white powder to addicts on cold turkey: A sniff of this and you’re high, high enough to shake up the Westminster establishment. It goes down a treat and seems to be too tempting to resist. In a recent German radio programme Scottish SNP voters were asked about the reasons for their voting intentions. Gerry Hassan, a university lecturer and blogger, has offered his explanation for the surge in SNP support:
We love it that we get so much media attention and that we are likely to be kingmaker. People love the idea of shaking up the British political establishment and to feel power. Scotland enjoys to be talked about.
In this quote language falls neatly into the all-too familiar patterns of generalising terms and phrases of SNP jargon. The example shows that it has taken root even in the thinking of an educated person. It proves what George Orwell said about the effect of manipulative usage of language which “can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better“.
In the same programme another quote from a law student highlights the irrational dimension of nationalist thinking. The interviewee explains why she joined the SNP after the referendum:
It was defiance. After the No vote I wanted to show loyalty to the party which has given us the referendum because nobody else would have given it to us. And now I think: SNP until there is independence.
Defiance and notions of loyalty induce thought and form the bedrock of an attitude which allows for unquestioning support of the nationalists and their independence cause.
The arch propagandist
Manipulation of the mind is often a slow, creeping process. If it takes long enough most people will forget what was thought and said before the first propaganda seeds were sown. But how can language actually be used to change people’s thinking? Let’s have a look at the advice of a proven expert whose recommendations can be applied to SNP practices:
Repetition and focus on a few key points:
The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is born in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. Propaganda must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over again.
The receptivity of the masses is very limited; their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. Consequently, all effective propaganda must harp on a few slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.
See Trident, fiscal autonomy, balance of power etc.
Identifying a sole enemy:
As soon as the wavering masses are confronted with too many enemies objectivity at once steps in“, therefore, “it is necessary to indict one sole enemy to march against one sole enemy.
See UK government in Westminster.
Enforcing black and white thinking:
The function of propaganda is not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right you have set out to argue for. Propaganda’s task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with ‘academic’ fairness. Propaganda’s task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.
See Scottish Independence.
Emphasis on emotion instead of reason:
Persuasion must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect” of people because “sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotions and feeling.
See Hope over fear, bairns before bombs, etc.
By the way, the expert quotes are from Adolf Hitler and can be found in a small publication by a US author Hitler’s Rhetorical Theory (PDF).
There’s no suggestion here that the SNP has taken its lessons from the grand masters of dark demagogy but, as an example of manipulation methodology, it highlights to what effect language can be instrumentalised. Nationalism has brought about a change in Scotland which I never expected to witness. Until recently, I had too much trust in the – dare I say it – British sense of democracy which, I assumed, made the people of these isles more or less immune to the SNP brand of nationalism. I was wrong, at least as far as this part of the UK is concerned.
But I refuse to think about Scotland in the terms which the nationalists have slipped into my ‘stepmother tongue’. For me, Scotland will always be the country and the people I learnt to love before the rise of the SNP. I object to thinking of Scots as ‘unionists’ or ‘Yessers’ or ‘traitors’. For me, Scots will always be Scots. At the next Scottish election I will therefore vote for a party which, in my view, represents the Scotland which is still very much alive despite the nationalists’ attempts to stifle it in favour of their own Saltire-clad fabrication. And this party won’t be the SNP. You can take my word for it.
- Guy Deutscher: Does Your Language Shape How You Think? (New York Times, 26/08/ 2010)
- Stefanie Schramm/Claudia Wüstenhagen: Die Macht der Worte (DIE ZEIT Wissen, 06/2012)
- George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (1946).
- Deutschlandfunk, broadcast from 29/04/2015
- Bruce Loeb: Hitler’s Rhetorical Theory (PDF), 2010)