Thursday 25 July 2019

The Accents Of Power.

Not What Simon Says, But How He Says It: From those who decried the Greens' attack ad ridiculing Opposition Leader Simon Bridges' accent, the challenge was as brutal as it was simple: Would the Greens’ campaign team have produced an attack ad making fun of a National Party MP from China or India who spoke English with a pronounced accent?

“CLASSIST BULLSHIT!”, was the tweeted response of one Green Party supporter. It was a sentiment shared by enough of the Greens electoral base to convince James Shaw to act. Within hours of the Green Party’s anti-National attack ad going up, it was taken down. Mocking the Leader of the Opposition’s broad Kiwi accent was unacceptable – even in the cause of fighting Climate Change.

On the face of it, the reaction of the Greens’ support base is a welcome confirmation that it still believes the Greens should keep well away from “dirty politics”. Attack advertising, according to these principled folk, is a foul form of political communication, best left to the hack parties of the centre-left and right.

From those who decried the ad, the challenge is as brutal as it is simple: Would the Greens’ campaign team have produced an attack ad making fun of a National Party MP from China or India who spoke English with a pronounced accent?

We all know the answer to that. To even suggest releasing an ad built around such an obvious racial slur would be a sacking offence in the 2019 Green Party apparatus. But, if using race in your party’s propaganda is utterly verboten, why is it permissible to use class? What does it say about the people who produced and approved the offending Green Party ad, that the decision to satirise Simon Bridges’ working-class accent set off no alarm-bells?

Is it because making fun of the cultural markers of working-class people is still not seen as an act of unforgiveable prejudice? And, if that is true, then why is it true? Drawing attention to the cultural markers of non-white ethnicity – especially for the purposes of ridicule – was long ago, and quite correctly, deemed racist. Why aren’t the injuries of class similarly condemned?

Answering that question leads us straight down a very deep, and very strange, rabbit-hole.

Twenty-first century New Zealanders are constantly reassuring themselves that their society is a meritocracy. If they apply themselves and acquire the right skills, then there is nothing to prevent them from rising to the very top of the social totem pole. By the same token: if they refuse to work hard and improve themselves, then they cannot expect to rise very high at all. Indeed, laziness and a lack of self-discipline can cause a person to fall deeper and deeper into material and moral poverty. The logic of meritocracy is unforgiving. If you have risen high in society, it’s because you have merit. If you have failed to rise, or, worse still, fallen, it’s because you lack merit. In a meritocracy, success and failure are both self-inflicted conditions.

Small wonder that meritocracy and neoliberalism have become inseparable. If people’s misfortunes are self-inflicted, then the state’s only responsibility towards the poor and marginalised is to provide them with the minimum sustenance required to prevent them from disturbing the peace (and/or threatening the property) of their more diligent neighbours. That word “minimum” is important. If the state were to become excessively generous, then meritorious behaviour would cease to be its own reward, and meritocracy, as a system for rewarding human striving, would collapse.

Accent, as the playwright George Bernard Shaw pointed out, plays a crucial role in identifying merit. In the words of Professor Higgins in Pygmalion:

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They cannot spell it because they have nothing to spell it with but an old foreign alphabet of which only the consonants – and not all of them – have any agreed speech value. Consequently no man can teach himself what it should sound like from reading it; and it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

In twenty-first century politics accent has become an indispensable marker of merit. Far more than was the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, how we speak confers upon us the right to speak. In the early decades of the democratic age, the humbug of meritocracy was not yet in evidence. (Although its religious progenitor, Protestantism, certainly played an analogous role in justifying the ways of the rich to the poor.) The poor, themselves, were in no doubt as to why they lived such harsh lives. It was because the rich forced them to. In the heroic phase of democracy, it was certainly no disgrace for a working-class politician to address his followers in the accents of their common condition.

In democracy’s decadent phase, however, these class markers serve a less positive function. A working-class person who has succeeded in the fields of entertainment, sport and (certain types of) business may retain his or her accent without incurring too much social disdain. But a politician who refuses to speak in the accents of someone deserving of respect, should not expect to get very much of it. It is no accident that the two most successful populists of the English-speaking world, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, both speak in the accents of the ruling-class. How they speak to their followers tells them as much about their heroes as what they say – perhaps more.

In the crudest possible terms: losers do not want to be wooed by losers; they want to be seduced by someone in the accents of a winner.

That’s why so many middle-class people are happy to make fun of Simon Bridges accent. His failure to teach himself how to speak “properly” is seen as a failure to appreciate what is required of someone aspiring to the office of prime minister. Someone born in China or India who has, nevertheless, mastered the language of their adopted country is, by contrast, seen as a person to be admired. Making fun of their accent represents a failure to recognise their true merit. It is the behaviour of someone who does not understand how twenty-first century meritocracy works; someone still mired in the nineteenth and twentieth century fallacy that ethnicity, in and of itself, confers merit. Yesterday’s ideology, for yesterday’s failures.

Neoliberalism cares nothing for the markers of ethnicity, gender or sexuality. What it values is the individual who understands not only the importance of rising up the socio-economic ladder, but also the importance of “making it” in the right way. The meritocratic winners can be black or white, male or female, gay or straight: no one cares. But, those aspiring to membership of the global elite who fail to grasp the importance of thinking in the right way, dressing in the right way, and yes, speaking in the right way, will soon discover that being laughed at and ridiculed are the least of their worries.

While capitalism endures, it will always be open season on the working class – even its accent. “Classist bullshit” it may be – but it works.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 July 2019.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Neoliberalism cares nothing for the markers of ethnicity, gender or sexuality. "

Beyond wrong. Neoliberalism as a "philosophy" can't care for anything. But neoliberals on the other hand definitely do. Just take one example, after how many years of neoliberal governments have we had at the moment? Since nineteen eighty-four? How come women is wages are still way behind men's? How come there are so few women on boards? It's all pretense, and subordinate to the old boys' club.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Further to that because accidentally clicked the button, if neoliberals didn't care about race, why was there such a visceral hatred of President Obama? Or Hillary Clinton? Why did they elect Boris Johnson as the British Prime Minister or Donald Trump as the American president? How many people of colour has Trump had in his cabinet?
At present, neoliberalism is a klown kar, and now we have one that drives on the left as well as on the right.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Mocking the Leader of the Opposition’s broad Kiwi accent was unacceptable – even in the cause of fighting Climate Change."
But... But... Free speech!

David George said...

Mock away Greens.
People are getting fed up with your hate filled racist dog whistling (colonists to describe folk born here?) elitist lecturing, climate change hysteria and your (highly selective) righteous indignation
George Orwell:

"I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of flihrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, Temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal."

A very interesting article which touches on this issue from Toby Young on the new British PM.

Kat said...

"Wot about Oly oaks plum n da froat den den Moledoon, bluddy provokadiv fukker he waz......"

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh God, a panegyric to Boris Johnson. I haven't laughed so much in years. It is definitely interesting.
The writer seems however to have completely forgotten the fact that:

1.Boris organised to get a journalist beat up. Only to the point of broken limbs I guess.
2. His broken more promises than Donald Trump, I could list them but there is a word limit.
3. He was sacked by the Times for making shit up.
4. Max Hastings, his ex-boss who is by no means a Communist, considers him unfit to be prime minister.
5. When he was Foreign Minister he managed to insult much of the Commonwealth – the bit that wasn't white – of course many people consider this a feature rather than a bug, but he also managed to get some poor incarcerated in Iran's jail term increased by making stupid statements.
6. He wasted 37 million pounds on a bridge that was never built – a vanity project and not the only one.
I could easily increase the size of this list but I won't bother. All I can say is that it's a sad reflection on British society in general and the Tory party in particular that
they will elect someone to public office who has a total lack of ethics. And I'm not just talking about the fact that he can't keep his Johnson where it belongs, but he has nothing in the way of broader ethical behaviour which you should look for in a politician. I think the best one word description I came across was "mountebank". Well it was the politest anyway. He's another one of these spurious men of the people, privileged and entitled who pretends to drink pints of beer and deliberately messes his hair before he presents himself for an interview – a complete fraud, and the Conservative party should be ashamed of themselves for electing such.If I had some animus towards the Brits, this is a very prime minister I would wish on them. But still, he does provide me with some innocent amusement.

greywarbler said...

If you are seeking amusement you will get lasting pleasure from Albert and the Lion recited by Stanley Holloway. Just think of Boris being Albert and the pleasure will be doubled.

aberfoyle said...

So its play the game not the player,please their have been many playing the player,Muldoon was a master of character assasination,what he say about one of the most likable lABOUR ever Bill Rowiling,a shiver looking for a spine.Neolibralism is a capitalist exploit looking for a victim. See the Nats,having their confrence,shall the blood of their leader be shed,doubt,probable left for not so a unity gatherings,not to sully the buzz.Yet their leader the Quare fellow, is foot stepping every day forward to the scaffold of not doubt but knowing leadership drop,no matter his fellow travlers say.

Shane McDowall said...

So you are defending the way Simon Bridges speaks.

That is odd.

In your 4 October, 2018 post titled "National's Little-Boy-Lost" you made reference to his "appalling diction".

You were right, his diction is appalling. So too the diction of Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn.

Mr Bridges accent is an affectation and he can change it.

I have met plenty of Poms from the north of England who sound like they are from the Home Counties.

Both Mick Jagger and violinist Kennedy have used fake Cockney accents.

If Poms can change their accents so too can Kiwis.

greywarbler said...

If you enjoyed Albert and the Lion or felt terribly miserable - you will be overjoyed to hear how He Came Back. And just when Ma and Pa were going to collect on the insurance too. It could turn out like that in Britain; just when the Don Insurance Coy slips a brown plastic bag to the Cons. the true UK will rise again, and save the day. Now kiddies, wasn't that a lovely story. And to help you smile again there are a lot of old fashioned cheeky postcards wot the yeomen of England used to enjoy back in their days of innocence and simplicity.

charles e said...

Funny no mention of our speech impaired PM.
But it is the content of speech that is more important of course. Fail there for the poor child. She only ever speaks in cliché and platitudes. She is truly without substance. A façade. And personally, I think most unattractive. Again irrelevant but so often brought up by her fans.. 'Oh she so so pretty ..' Nah.

No GS you really miss the point when it comes to liberalism. I know you cannot believe it but we do not give a shit for your group identity. We solely judge you on your individual merit and character. Just as Chris says. Merit trumps all, as in nature. We are animals after all.
So in the wild, your survival would seriously be in doubt.
Thank our excellent J-C culture for your life mate.