Sapir, Whorf and the categories of Irish political discourse


We may all be Chomskyans now, at least at an abstract level, but I still hold stubbornly that Sapir and Whorf were onto something. To recap, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, simply stated, involves the idea that linguistic structures are an important force in ordering cognition. There is a political analogue to this, which is that you can’t switch your vocabulary or categories willy-nilly without there being an impact on the underlying ideology. This is in contrast to most politicos, who hold to the Stephen Pinker view that thought is independent of language.

The one person in Irish politics who grasps this instinctively is Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who may not be the first person you’d associate with theoretical linguistics. But if you get to hear Ruairí deliver a speech, you’ll be struck by how careful he is in his choice of words. This derives from the idea, quaint as it may seem today, that your words have an intrinsic meaning. And this, incidentally, is why RSF don’t contest local council elections in the North – while PSF candidates have merrily signed the mandatory anti-violence declaration, with tongue in cheek as Morrison said, Sinn Féin Eile refuse to sign a document they don’t agree with. It may be dogmatic, but it’s honest.

Now I want to consider the intrusion of liberalism into Irish politics, particularly as it’s affected republicanism and the left. I think we can take it that the first serious irruption of modern liberalism into the Irish body politic comes with the birth of the civil rights movement in the mid-60s. In its later manifestation as Humespeak, human rights liberalism has come to dominate discourse in the North, even being adopted in modulated form by the mad loyalists.

But I’m interested for the moment in its adoption by PSF, not universally by any means but being absolutely dominant with the more Sinn Féin Nua elements. Grizzlyspeak is not exactly Humespeak, just as PSF politics cannot simply be reduced to souped-up SDLP politics, but the categories are pretty much the same. The old republican touchstones have been replaced by a rights-based discourse, and even if those using this discourse retain republican opinions, it’s difficult to see how the shift in language couldn’t affect the underlying politics. It’s a bit like what happened to the old communists when they adopted the language of social democracy.

Actually, if I am right this is one of the few trends to move from North to South. For all the discussion of the D4 “liberal agenda”, and the concrete points of that agenda, the more nebulous ideological-linguistic element tends to go unremarked, except by Des Fennell. But it’s noteworthy that the Banana Republic has managed to reinvent itself as a model rights-based liberal democracy. This may or may not be a good thing in itself, but it’s worth remembering that human rights liberalism forms a discourse in itself, not only distinct from but opposed to the previously dominant discourses in the South, de Valera’s social Catholicism for most of the post-independence period and, prior to that, British parliamentary democracy. (A Burkean conservative would deduce from this that there is a tension between liberalism and British traditions, and he would be right.) These rival discourses go a long way to explaining why the tofu-eating South Dublin neo-democrats have never really constituted themselves as an Establishment in the British sense, but continue to see themselves as in opposition to Irishness as hitherto constituted.

You get similar tensions on the further left, but expressed in a different way. It’s my belief that British Marxism is extremely heavily influenced by liberalism, and you would expect that to be replicated by its Irish branch offices. It’s a lot more obvious with the SWP, who rarely use Marxist categories to explain anything. If you go to the Marxism event, you’ll be struck by this – unless you specifically go to one of the few educational sessions on Marxist theory, you won’t hear much that’s outside the bounds of Guardian liberalism. Differences will be in terms of conclusions, not categories.

The Socialist Party is a rather different animal. I’ve had occasion to lash the Millies for their economism, but it’s only fair to say that a little economism is a good thing. The problem that Marxists face is that Marxism, while it’s very good on economic categories, is extremely weak in certain other areas – notably politics, law and ethics. (There have been useful contributions on these, especially from the old Praxis group in Yugoslavia, but they don’t cut much ice with British neo-Trotskyism.) The trouble with the Militant tradition, following Kautsky, is that it deals with these gaps in a vulgar materialist manner, by stretching economic categories to cover areas they can’t really cope with. Hence the reductionist element in Militant reasoning.

But it’s not an easy question, is it? If we find Marxism to be inadequate in a particular area, do we stretch Marxist thought to breaking point to try and cover it? Engels certainly had a few choice words for the sort of cranks attracted to the early Marxist movement, each searching the answer to his own hobbyhorse. Or do we fill the gaps with liberal nostra, even if they don’t gel especially well with Marxism? And it’s the same thing with republicanism, which has always been more ideologically eclectic – do modern conditions require the adoption of liberal discourse, or can answers be found within the old traditions?


  1. ejh said,

    September 11, 2007 at 9:41 am

    That’s the new Basil Brush, isn’t it? Does he still say “boom boom”? If he does then he can’t really represent the different between the old SF and the new one…

  2. Andy Newman said,

    September 11, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Very interesting.

    It might also be argued – with some acknowledgment to Perry Anderson – that the prevailing mainstream political theory in Britain has been historically empirical and philistine. So the liberalism coming from Britain is also a shallow and impressionistic one. This is particularly true with regard to the constitution and distinctive nature of the British state.

    So it is interesting that the British game in the six counties now promotes a rights based agenda, at exactly the same time that the British Labour Party is painting itself into a corner as upholding the principle that sovereignty lies in parliament and not with the people (which they need to do in order to side step the West Lothian question).

    If your thesis is corrent that the words and arguments used influence the underlying political thought, then this must be even more true when they start using arguments that are also underpinned by an institutional vested interest as well. So as the brit labour party increasingly stresses the sovereignty of Westminster as a necessary argument in defence of the Union (with Scotland – the six counties becomming a side show) then they put themselves at odds with the prevailing drift of left liberalism over the last three decades – which has welcomed the human rights philosophy coming from the EU.

    At the risk of again upsetting one of your regular commenters, I would say that the English left do indeed have an impoverished political vocabulary to deal with the growing crisis in the British state, becasue Trotskist marxism has been uninterested in constitutional reforms, and the prevailing empiricism of british political thought has assumed that the structures of the british constitution are self eveident and do not require underlying theory – so there is not even a Guardian reading consensus to fall back upon.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 11, 2007 at 11:11 am

    He still says Boom Boom, but the new Basil is surprisingly satirical…

  4. Louisefeminista said,

    September 11, 2007 at 11:20 am

    “He still says Boom Boom, but the new Basil is surprisingly satirical…”

    Nah, I prefer the old Basil

  5. ejh said,

    September 11, 2007 at 11:26 am

    It’s actually on TVE2 in Spain in the mornings, but I’m always out at that time so I can’t tell you how it’s rendered in Spanish.

    I bet he doesn’t still sing “Bulldog Basil, The Secret Service Man” at the end.

  6. Renegade Eye said,

    September 11, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    Form and content is an old question. What good is having a correct position, if it is not communicated.

    On the other hand, people also rebel against good packaging, with empty content.

  7. Cian said,

    September 12, 2007 at 8:40 am

    Chomsky has a lot less traction in the academy than people think. There’s a fairly healthy and strong tradition within Psychology that aligns pretty well with Sapir-Whorf. You can draw a line from people like Vygotsky, to modern psychologists like George Lakoff, all of whom in some way agree with it.
    Personally I think you only have to read philosophers who wrote in different languages to realise that there’s something to it.

    Incidentally, I don’t think Chomsky is taken that seriously by a lot of cognitive/experimental psychologists.

  8. Cian said,

    September 12, 2007 at 9:06 am

    Well the trouble with anti-intellectualism is that you to tend to mistake your social conditioning (which liberalism is, if you’re Anglo/Irish) for common sense. I think the English left has an impoverished political vocabulary, because its largely dominated by philistines and lazy intellectuals, much like the mainstream liberal establishment.

    Its pretty depressing, but at a time when a serious radical left is needed desperately not only do we not have one, but its hard to see where it would come from. The only serious political resistance of the last ten to fifteen years in the UK has come from the RTS/anti Roads/anti-globo groups. Now I like them, respect their tactics, but they’re so atheoretical they’re never going to get much beyond resistance, which is a hopeless strategy.

  9. ejh said,

    September 12, 2007 at 9:29 am

    I would recommend a good read of Thompson’s The Poverty Of Theory for anybody who agrees with the above.

    What exactly is “an impoverished political vocabulary”? What would a political vocabulary look like that was not impoverished?

    There’s a lot of mistaking symptoms for causes that goes on when discussing the shrinking of the radical left. The reason it has shrunk is not because of any failure of discourse, or for that matter of programme or analysis. It’s because, due to social change and political developments entirely, the people on whom the left depend have, whether temporarily or permanently, largely lost interest in ideas of socialism and trades unionism. Nobody’s fault.

  10. Cian said,

    September 12, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    And what do you think the above is? What is my argument, and how does it relate to Thompson’s (flawed) critique of Althusser?

    An impoverished vocabulary is one where you don’t have words to describe concepts that you wish to discuss. Makes life difficult. If you don’t believe me, listen to an American liberal contort themselves trying to talk about social deprevation without using the word class.

    Of course what I meant, was a impoverishing theoretical framework for analysis. We all have these frameworks. If nothing else, I assume most readers of this site have a vaguely Marxist take on capitalism. Good frameworks help one to make sense of the world, to pay attention to the detail that matters and to see what is going on. Bad ones don’t.
    I’m not sure why you think that’s a call for overdeterministic top down, ungrounded, theories. Thompson, regardless of his protests, did believe in theory. He was after all a marxist, and his work is filled with theoretical constructs that arise from his analysis. Thompson is dead now, who has replaced him? There’s some of the New Left Review crowd I guess (though they seem to be read more widely in the US, than here) and people like David Harvey.
    The alternative is what we seem to have now. Either conspiritorial thinking which is a real problem now for the left*, or just vague waffling that you tend to get from much of the anti-globo crowd, which doesn’t tell you much about what globalisation is, how it happened, or what one might want to do about it. And which is pretty hopeless when it come to analysing economics. Which leaves them pretty vulnerable both to counterattack (its pretty easy to shoot holes in the arguments of many of the prominent anti-globo people), but also makes it pretty difficult to work out what one is for.
    And that seems to be a bigger problem for the left these days, in that nobody much is discussing what they want to construct in its place. You either have nostalgia for the past (which wasn’t that great, but was I guess better), vague social democrat leanings (which isn’t much better), or nothing very much.

    “There’s a lot of mistaking symptoms for causes that goes on when discussing the shrinking of the radical left.”

    Which is germane to what I said how exactly? I’m not sure it has shrunk if you include much of the radical green/anti-globo resistance movement.

    “The reason it has shrunk is not because of any failure of discourse, or for that matter of programme or analysis.”

    Actually that is one of the reasons that it did shrink, because a number of people did leave radical left movements because they thought the old analysis had been discredited by events. A lot of them became neoliberals, so obviously they were looking for some programme/analysis.

    “The people on whom the left depend have, whether temporarily or permanently, largely lost interest in ideas of socialism and trades unionism. Nobody’s fault.”

    Well I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I think they’ve lost interest in what the marxist radical left are offering, but that’s something else.
    And its a bit of stretch to say its nobody’s fault that people lost interest in trade unionism.

  11. ejh said,

    September 12, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    I’m not sure why you think that’s a call for overdeterministic top down, ungrounded, theories.

    I’m not sure how that related to anything that said.

    And that seems to be a bigger problem for the left these days, in that nobody much is discussing what they want to construct in its place. You either have nostalgia for the past (which wasn’t that great, but was I guess better), vague social democrat leanings (which isn’t much better), or nothing very much.

    This, however, is very relevant to what I said, because it’s a a very good description of me. These days, apart from being “of the Left” I have very little idea what I think specifically. The world has changed a great deal since my socialist youth and while of course it is still a world of Them and Us (how could it not be, with increasing inequality?) the ways in which people experience this, understand or fail to understand it, and respond to it, are changing too.

    We don’t have any obvious way forward in these circumstances and no amount of analysis is going to change that. By all means carry it out, everything that is genuinely thoughtful is genuinely constructive, but it’s not a prerequisite for anything. I don’t believe that there some Way which will enable the Left to find its audience again – the audience will have to find itself before it goes looking for any answers. Until that happens it’s all very general and perhaps very defensive, I think: it’s hard enough explaining to anybody under 25 what a trade union is and why subsidised housing might be a good idea and I’m not sure (and I am not, I assure you, a philistine) that developing a richer theoretical vocabulary will aid with that particular task.

  12. Andy Newman said,

    September 12, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    The question here is starkly posed.

    Can we blame the desperate situation we find ourselves in on objective circumstances, or are their systemic failures in the way the left organises, thinks and debates that have contributed to our isolation.

    I would say it is both.

    Clearly unfavourable objective circumstances have exagerated and exacerbated tensions.

    But there have been other processes, the following observations are limited to Britain, but some of them may have operated in Ireland as well.

    i) the collapse of left social democracy as the mixed economy paradigm was subsumed into monetarism, and social democracy failed to find an ideological or political response.
    ii) the failure of the official communist party to escape the crushing weight of their history, so that the tankie wing that had influence in the unions were stuck defending the gulags, while the reform wing became effectively liquidationist.
    iii) the protracted crisis of the Grant/Healy/Cliff model of “party” building that has trapped the far left. So that they are simultaneosuly influential within the relativley small world of organised left politics, while unable to grow beyond the limits of that milieu.
    iv) the empiricism, life-stylism and implict liberalism of the eco and anti-globalisation protest movements.
    v) the highly attenuated activist base in the trade unions so that even those unions who are returning to a more class struggle orientation are excessivley reliant on full tme officers rather than militant lay activists.

    Obvioulsy most of these features interact with each other.

    Like the rest of you Ii don’t have any answers, but a useful starting point would be for the British left to stop thinking it is a normative, and an examplet to follow, and start looking at reasons whay the left in most other European countries is more successful than us.

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