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…