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“Watch Your Mouth!” – The Uses and Abuses of Language in the Media

The messages which bombard us every day from various directions have exponentially increased during the second half of the 20th century.

Anthony R Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson spotted these tendencies in their famous book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. In the late 80’s in the United States, there were 1,449 television stations and four major networks, 10,379 radio stations, 1,509 daily newspapers and 7,047 weekly newspapers, more than 17,000 magazines and newsletters, and nine major film studios. Americans have ample opportunity to consume mass media messages, and consume they do. Each year, the typical American watches 1,550 hours of TV, listens to 1,160 hours of radio on one of 530 million radio sets, and spends 180 hours reading 94 pounds of newspapers and 110 hours reading magazines. If you consider this an overwhelmed communication environment, you can imagine how many commercial ads and political ads pops up in our news feeds, how many blogs, television stations, and newspapers exist in our free western world.

If we continuously increase the amount of a given item, it is going to be less valuable we call this phenomenon inflation. This is not different in the case of classical journalism, the main purpose of which is to serve the role of a “fourth estate” and guide citizens through ideas, ideologies and viewpoints. Due to competition, we have less and less time to know what we are talking about. But if our job is to watch the corrupt politicians or the ones intent on turning our countries into fascist regimes, we should be careful about who we call fascist, or who we accuse of corruption.

Is Donald Trump a fascist dictator? If you google this question, you will find thousands of articles trying to examine this question. More than likely, Donald J. Trump has been called a fascist dictator more often than almost any other democratically elected president. But how can this happen now? In the past few decades, if a politician was accused of being a fascist as often as Trump has, their political career would crash and burn; certainly, they would not win election to the presidency of the United States. Usually, if a politician shows “fascistic tendencies,” he or she won’t be elected, and if someone receives an adequate amount of accusations of fascism, the candidate is just going to be destroyed in a political sense. Somehow, though, this is no longer the case.

A 2015 Los Angeles Times editorial cartoon depicting then presidential candidate Donald Trump as a fascist leader (David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)

The reason that this can happen in today’s society is that most people don’t really know what fascism is. The Oxford dictionary describes it as “An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.” As we can see, this definition leaves a great deal of room for interpretation, and undertaking such interpretation is not a new phenomenon. In some ways, we have never really known what fascism is. In 1944, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled “What is Fascism?” In it, he examines what authors described as “fascist” in the newspapers. His conclusion was that nearly everyone can be described as fascist, from British trade unions in India to boy scout organizations to the Catholic Church. Nor was this trend limited to left-leaning writers: traditional conservatives in the 1940s, defenders of the old capitalist, religious system, saw fascists and communists as essentially identical.

We can see that, even in 1944, when fascism was a political reality in several European countries, people used the word to attack their ideological opponents, and weren’t clear on the term’s meaning. In this sense, at least, the situation in the Western World is much the same. We call a person a fascist who is rigorous about grammar mistakes, a person who strictly follows rules, or even a security guard who doesn’t let you smoke a cigarette in a fast food restaurant; and of course, the term remains an attack word for political purposes. But one thing has certainly changed: the extent to which the term ‘fascist’ is thrown around in both traditional and new media platforms. We use this word so often, that it does not have any affect anymore. In overusing it, we have in turn drained it of its power, and if someone really shows these fascist tendencies, the accusations don’t catch the public’s attention anymore.

As we have seen, then, fascism can, seemingly, be anything: similarly, here in Hungary we use the word corruption to discredit political opponents, During the last two decades we have used the word with increasing frequency, but perhaps the October 2006 demonstrations were a turning point. Since then, the term has perhaps reached its peak. We hear the word corrupt so often in the media, it doesn’t have any effect on the political situation anymore. First of all, we don’t really know what, exactly, corruption is. If we would ask a politician, or a journalist who built a carrier on fighting corruption, for their definitions of the word, both would likely define it in a way that wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny.

Generally, however, there are three major interpretations: (1) corruption is an act which is against the law. But we can see cases in Hungary when everything is done according to law, or the law is deliberately formatted to benefit certain actors. (2) The second approach considers an act corrupt when it is against the common good. This is more difficult than the other one. For example, if a government wants to prefer national companies in railroad reconstruction to keep Hungarian funds in domestic hands, is it corruption or redistribution, or simply supporting domestic businesses? We don’t know! (3) The third definition is even more confusing: a corrupt act is what the public consider corruption. We know, here in Hungary, many people define corruption as when other people are the beneficiaries of privileges, and not you, and your political circle. Of course, there are more interpretation, there are white, grey, and black forms of corruption, and there are even theorists, known as functionalists, who say corruption can be positive, if it serves the system and is not detrimental to society.

Hungary has been a changing society for three decades now. It would have been normal to have these theoretical debates in the early 90’s, and to undertake deep empirical studies about the effects of corruption. But Hungarian society skipped this process, and corruption has just become an everyday attack word. These problems are not just academic in nature: if we don’t know what we are fighting against, we cannot be effective. If we use the words ‘corrupt’ or ‘fascist’ carelessly, without regard for consequences, we just do greater harm to society. Everyday attacks can weaken society’s attention. If the newspapers just accuse politicians of corruption just to harm them, or to be sensational, if they write without hard evidence, and without any hope of bringing about consequences, society will simply stop paying attention, and turn towards apathy, and hopelessness. This also could strengthen the politicians in question in their belief that articles on corruption are just accusations, and they are only politically motivated, simply because nothing happens afterward.

The conclusion of this story could be that we must know what we are talking about, we cannot just make statement without exact definitions, because in doing so, we may make the problem bigger, make the actors more immune, and thereby strengthen the evil what we are supposedly fighting against. Ultimately, whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist, or whether (or to what extent) the Hungarian government is corrupt, are beside the point: rather, we should such weighty and serious terms with the respect as they deserve. If we overuse them, they will lose their meaning entirely, and the realm of objective facts will lose even more ground before the rising tide of disinformation and partisan propaganda that can be seen around the world.

 

By Gábor Sarnyai

 

About the author:

Originally from Serbia’s Vojvodina region, Gábor Sarnyai holds a degree in political science from Budapest’s Corvinus University, and has worked as a journalist at numerous Hungarian news outlets.

 

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