The prime minister was accused of stoking up unrest by branding a parliamentary bill the "Surrender Bill"—and that's just the tip of the icebergby Chris Stokel-Walker / October 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
The language our elected officials use has been in the headlines after Boris Johnson was last week accused of stoking up unrest by branding a parliamentary bill the “Surrender Bill”—behaviour for which, a week on, he has still so far refused to apologise fully.
There were ugly scenes in the House of Commons as MPs on both sides became ever-more fractious when Boris Johnson described MPs’ fears that his language in the chamber could incite real-life violence as “humbug.”
MP Jess Phillips, who allegedly faced threats tied to comments made by the Prime Minister, said in parliament that the language used by the prime minister was “entirely designed to inflame hatred and division.”
“Such degree of incivility has rarely been seen in a public debate, not just in the UK, but even in the US, where the political discourse is highly negative towards opponents,” says Dr Delia Dumitrescu, lecturer in media and cultural politics at the University of East Anglia.
An exclusive analysis for Prospect by Newcastle-based sentiment analysis firm Wordnerds appears to support that claim.
The company used machine learning and advanced linguistics to look at how MPs used language in the contentious Commons discussion around Brexit.
“There are three unusual ways in which Boris Johnson uses language,” explains Steve Erdal, director of linguistics at Wordnerds. “Firstly, there has been a serious uptake in hostility in his choice of words.”
One in 28 words Johnson used at the despatch box on 25 September were included on Harvard University’s list of semantically hostile words—those which “indicate an attitude or concern with hostility or aggressiveness.” Such words appeared roughly once every sentence and a half.
The language included Johnson’s christening of the Benn Act, which prevents a no-deal Brexit, as the “Surrender Bill,” as well as words such as “betraying” the will of the people and “frustrating” the result of the 2016 EU referendum.
At the same time, Labour MPs honed in on Johnson’s use of vituperative language. In fact, “language” was the third-most used key term in last week’s contentious parliamentary debate, according to Wordnerds.
The impact of such language is double-edged, says Dumitrescu: “His supporters will be incentivised by anger to take action to protect what they see as their right—to get out of the EU on October 31 deal or no deal—while others will be demobilised by the level of incivility, leading to them switching off politics altogether.”
Dumitrescu also believes the verbal analysis understates the hostility involved. “Non-verbal behaviour is automatically registered and processed by the brain before the speech—so angry gestures, a loud tone of voice will definitely be noticed by the viewers, leading to an amplification of the anger, but also the disgust with politics,” she says.
But last week’s parliamentary session was unusual in another way.
“The second unusual linguistic trick is the regular repetition of key phrases,” says Erdal. “Johnson used the phrase ‘get Brexit done’ 19 times during the session, and ‘the Surrender Act’ 13 times. This is obviously quite a common rhetorical technique for politicians.”
It is also becoming more common across politics, according to research by Veronika Koller of Lancaster University, who has analysed the Commons’ journal Hansard, finding a rise in the frequency of terms such as “traitors”, “betrayal” and “surrender” in the last two years.
“She suggests that [the rise in frequency] can be pegged closely to Brexit-based debates,” says Dr Jonathan Kasstan, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Westminster.
“In a sense, she is right to point out, too, that increased use of such terms could be understood as invoking a confrontational or combative style, where the EU is caricatured as foe, not friend,” Kasstan adds. “Such a narrative is clearly designed to be reductive, because it frames an ‘us and them’ binary narrative around a referendum with an equally reductive binary choice.”
Where Johnson differed was his use of the first person—an indication, perhaps, of his personality. The first person pronoun was used by the prime minister 340 times in the contentious Wednesday night parliamentary debate. “He refers to himself an astonishing amount,” says Erdal. “The word ‘I’ was the most linguistically significant – the word he used more often than we would have expected.”
“We have seen an increase in aggressive and violent language,” Erdal adds. “But the most significant thing about Boris Johnson’s language is how he perceives himself.”
This was one analysis of one debate—and as such should be treated with caution. But the broader picture is concerning, says Kasstan. “Whatever the data may say, it is clear that, increasingly, MPs feel themselves to be at risk outside of the Chamber: their lived experiences tell their own stories.
“We should stress that talk does not take place in a social vacuum: it is perceived, responded to and acted upon very variably. Sensational media reporting of the kind we have seen recently does not help the matter.”