THANKS to Lynne Truss we all now know the joke about how a simple comma changes a panda from a cuddly black-and-white vegetarian that eats shoots and leaves into a mysterious gun-toting, but hungry, restaurant killer who eats, shoots and leaves.
That’s four words. Even single words can carry huge meaning. One simple Twitter hashtag caught everything I felt after President Barack Obama’s election victory – #phew.
Even more powerful are emotions generated simply by choosing what word to place alongside another. Those simple word pairs can push us into opposing frames of mind. For many years, clever conservative politicians here, and in America, were successful in always associating the word “tax” with the word “burden” – the “tax burden” on individuals and the “tax burden” on companies.
Most of us don’t actually enjoy paying tax so the association of tax with “burden” easily took root. Then they were able to introduce the natural follow-on idea of “tax relief”– throwing off the tax burden and setting companies and individuals free from its cumbersome weight. And of course, because wealthy individuals and companies have a larger “burden” to carry, they conclude it’s right they should also have larger “relief”. It’s that idea of “setting free” which underlies George Osborne’s decisions to cut corporation tax on companies and income tax on top earners.
That’s beginning to shift now. Others are taking the idea of “burden” and saying of wealthy companies and individuals “those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden”. This rings true because it holds an idea of fairness. UK Uncut and others, in criticising companies and individuals who use all kinds of methods to avoid tax, can now even associate the word “tax” with the word “cheat”. And again it rings true; we all know paying tax is a common investment in common benefits, like hospitals, roads or the army. If you benefit from that investment, but don’t pay your share, then you’re cheating on the rest of us. Starbucks, Amazon and Google have been accused of being “tax cheats” by some recently.
Everyone, politicians included, try to change the way others think by careful choice of words. Here’s another example. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
As the SNP government’s proposed referendum question it’s short, plain, and to the point. And, as we would expect, very clever in its use of words. It almost makes us feel it would be somehow wrong, unpatriotic, to say no. There’s a Braveheart emotion in there, which is about standing tall, planting our feet in the promised land, strong and free.
Take it apart and look at it. For instance, why even use the simple word “be” rather than the word “become”? “Be” assumes independence is just a simple switch over from one state of being to another and that the result of that switch somehow can only be benign. But Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for 300 years; independence wouldn’t simply be a switch over, it would necessarily be the result of a lengthy and perhaps difficult period of adjustment and negotiation.
“Become” would better reflect the real world and the often messy process of political change. It implies that there’s a process, a transition that may or may not hold hidden pitfalls. Therefore, from the SNP’s point of view, “become” is a word to be avoided. “Be” is much more comforting and avoids all those ideas of process and difficulty.
The word they can’t avoid is “independent” and why would they? It’s a strong, forthright, stand-up-for-yourself sort of word. Those on the other side of the argument, who argue that Scotland and the rest of the UK are all better off if we stay together, see the word “separation” as much more descriptive of what is being proposed. It’s an accurate description of the choice we’ll have to make, just as “independent” is accurate. But it carries with it quite a different set of emotions – of uncertainty, of going it alone, even of pain. Even though that answer is, at the moment, the one most people in Scotland seem to favour, “separation” is a word the Scottish Government will avoid at all costs.
Even the word “country” in the question is chosen with care. The SNP government could have used “nation” or even “state”. Any would have been accurate, so why choose country? Perhaps because the UK is made up of four countries anyway and most agree that Scotland is a different, even separate, country from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Then, of course, it’s not too big a mental step from “different” and “separate” to “independent”. But use the word “nation”, and especially the word “state”, and our feelings change. If Scotland becomes an independent and separate state from the rest of the UK it could be just like its other neighbour, France – and the implications of passports, ambassadors, trade arguments and illegal immigrants all come to mind. That’s not a prospect that the SNP government wants us to dwell upon.
Even “do you agree” implies more than a “yes” or a “no”. “Well, it depends…” or “not right now” would be more realistic answers when so much of the success, or failure, of the independence project would depend on the details of the deal negotiated between Scottish and UK governments. But “yes” or “no” is all we’ll get.
Is there a better alternative question? Maybe. And the Electoral Commission will have to think about it. But one of the arguments against referenda is that it is almost impossible to craft a completely neutral question – and that those in power will seek to influence the answer by manipulating the words. As we see.