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'Militant, hard-liners or Nazis' - How those challenging the status quo are labelled

Language is used in a manipulative way to make one side of the debate seem practical and free of ideological bias and the other side as completely unreasonable.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

THE HUNGARIAN SOCIOLOGIST Karl Mannheim observed that at the core of any public debate is a clash of two ideologies. One is usually the dominant ideology, supporting the status quo, while the other is the challenging ideology, which seeks to bring about some kind of change.

The reason the dominant ideology is usually so successful, according to Mannheim, is precisely its ability to deny that it is an ideology at all. Supporters of it insist that their position is based on nothing more than cool reason and logic, while accusing their opponents of being irrational fanatics who are incapable of clear-headed thinking.

I was reminded of this in hearing about comments recently made by Pat Kenny during his morning show on Newstalk. He recalled driving through West Cork a few years ago and noticing that in the lead up to a bad series of bends, there was a sign saying “Go Mall” to tell motorists to slow down.

Kenny felt that this would likely lead American tourists to think that they were approaching a shopping mall rather than a dangerous stretch of road, and blamed this potential confusion on “quite militant Irish language activists”.

‘Hardline zealots’

This is exactly the kind of thing Mannheim was referring to. Kenny felt that he was simply raising a practical concern. Of course, in order for this problem to arise, we must assume that Americans will believe that yellow road warning signs have been repurposed to notify them, through pidgin English, that they have stumbled upon a shopping metropolis in the wilds of the Múscraí Gaeltacht.

We also must assume that there were no other signs in English. Signs solely in Irish do exist in the Gaeltacht, but they are almost always in addition to, rather than in replacement of, the regular road signs we find across Ireland.

But it was Kenny’s choice of the word “militant” to describe Irish language supporters that was most interesting. This automatically labels those who might disagree with Kenny as aggressive, hardline zealots, lacking the cool, detached logical worldview of people like himself.

There is a well-worn path used to discredit supporters of the Irish language. People depict them as frothing at the mouth in their eagerness to impose their wicked totalitarian nightmare upon us all. Those who oppose them, of course, are imagined as entirely sensible and rational, completely free of anything so sordid as an “ideology”.

Dominant ideologies

This kind of language is not confined to the Irish language debate. In fact, anyone who seeks to challenge some social norm is likely to be on the receiving end of it. Feminism is an ideology that seeks to change the position of women in society relative to men. What do those who disagree label them? Militants and Feminazis, people who think irrationally because of their blind hatred of men.

We see similar language in Scotland on the question of independence. It isn’t a coincidence that opponents of the SNP use the derogatory name “Nats” to discredit them.

Indeed, Britain has given us a wonderful example of how dominant ideologies mask their presence in two monumental referendums they recently held, on the question of Scottish independence in 2014, and the Brexit vote in 2016.

The 2014 referendum was a contest between two different nationalisms, British and Scottish. But that is not how it was depicted in the media. British nationalism, by virtue of supporting the status quo, was able to blend into the background. Its supporters depicted themselves as inclusive, enlightened, fiscally responsible, outward looking and tolerant people. On the other hand, they painted independence advocates as xenophobic, parochial, economically hair-brained extremists.

But in 2016, British nationalism was the ideology seeking to overturn the status quo, and was visible to the naked eye. Broadly speaking, the principles upon which one would argue against Scottish independence and against a British withdrawal from the European Union are very similar. But many of those who opposed Scottish independence made an about-face upon these principles that they supposedly based their opposition on.

‘Enlightened high ground’ 

All of the major supporters of Brexit today, like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg, were opponents of Scottish independence in 2014. This shows that their views were never shaped entirely by logic or rationality, but rather always had a significant ideological bent. In 2014, Johnson wrote prior to the independence vote that the Scots “have yet to think through the horrific financial and constitutional implications of…divorce.” Mercifully, he would never make a mistake like that himself.

The point is, if you closely examine those who have claimed the enlightened high ground for themselves, their level-headedness can be something of a mirage. Try tracking some of those people who refer to feminists as militant Nazis. You will often find them organizing, without any apparent sense of irony, coordinated attacks against those they disagree with on the message boards of 4chan.

So remember the teachings of Mannheim the next time you see someone throwing around the word “militant”. They might not be quite as free of ideology as they would have you believe.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

Read: ’There’s a deep-rooted hatred toward the indigenous culture of Ireland, above all its language’>

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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