The power of words

After the Brexit vote, those of us who wanted the European project to continue are sometimes struggling to do empathy with those who voted to leave. We have to try.

Empathy is not about agreeing. Empathy is about trying to understand other people in the context of their lives. Empathic understanding matters because it helps people live together, deal with conflict, and avoid violence.


The comment below appeared on my Twitter and Facebook timelines several times, and has been retweeted 28K times. Each time I’ve seen it, I have wanted to shout, “Be careful!”

A close look at the language reveals its power. Three “tragedies” are presented as facts. The “working class” vote is commented on in what seems to be a compassionate way. The second employs more dyspathic language. It is factually inaccurate: no-one has yet “lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries”; it remains to be negotiated. I live in Berlin and love it here, and hope it continues to be possible. Then there’s a lyrical sentence about friendships etc denied that any reader will want to ascribe to. But it’s the next sentence that I find so dyspathic:

“Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors.”

Such choices of language place generations in opposition; and opposition in words can push us along a road to dyspathy, blame, and conflict. “our parents” tells us that the writer is a member of this denied generation. I am a member of that parents’ generation. And this accusation hurts so much because, for most parents, our children’s lives matter so much. We would never want to deny them opportunities and friendships. This choice of words denies us our parenthood.

The label “our parents, uncles, and grandparents” emotively prods the reader. It is used to label the group 60+ in the demographic statistics (and why is no one questioning where these came from?). Lumping them altogether in opposition to a ‘younger generation’  produces an ‘Other’ that can be blamed, while ignoring differences and subtleties.

Statistically, these 60+ voters must also be largely the people labelled as “the working class who voted for us to leave”. On the radio, I heard a woman from this demographic explain that she voted leave to help build a better world for her children and grandchildren. I may disagree with her decision but I have to notice that her motive was the same as mine. Lumping and splitting people into ‘them and us’ makes us blind to what we have in common.

“in a parting blow”: violent metaphors bring violence into a conversation. They are never innocent (cf  Farage’s crass ‘with not a shot fired’).

The metaphor of “drowning in debt” suggests violence plus helplessness and lack of agency. Now more than ever, we need – every one of us – to assume responsibility for our politics and governing.

“our predecessors” neatly suggests, without actually saying so, that responsibility lies with the same “parents etc”, adding to the blame. Empathy requires understanding of the historical context.

The bigotry that the writer laments is a temptation for all of us to resist. Our choice of words has the power to deny or increase empathic understanding.


One Response to “The power of words”
  1. Elizabeth Sandie says:

    Thanks Lynne, I was about to ask for advice as was really struggling to understand the Brexit mindset. Of course it is not just one mind. Just as I don’t want to be lumped with all the 65+ having campaigned and voted for Remain. Apparently it was more likey to happen if you didn’t have a passport and didn’t have a degree.

    Hope I haven’t said anything inflammatory on mine.

    Elizabeth x

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