New Internationalist

Speaking The Unspoken

April 1985

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MANAGED SOCIETY [image, unknown] The power to define

Speaking the unspoken
One way that society is managed is through seemingly neutral codewords
or phrases - behind which lie a whole series of unspoken assumptions.


[image, unknown] An expert is someone whose experience allows him or her to guide confused individuals through an increasingly complex world.

‘Military experts say the Russians are now ahead of us in weapons technology.’

By knowing slightly more than most people on one subject the expert can give opinions which others will treat as facts. And the narrower the speciality the more weight the opinion will be given. By narrowing their areas of speciality the experts also narrow ours. So a business analyst on TV will confine himself (and it usually is a man) to financial affairs rather than getting involved in workplace health hazards or the company’s impact on the environment.

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Internal and external vigilance which helps a nation ensure its continued survival.

‘Gabriel Garcia Marquez will not, for reasons of
national security, be allowed to enter the USA’

The techniques that keep a nation secure are also those that keep its government comfortably in power - so they will tend to be quite widely used. If in any doubt, a document will be stamped ‘top secret’. And citizens who irritate the government will find they have computerized files opened on them - just in case.

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A generally understood sense of what the people of any given society are thinking

‘The latest crime figures have outraged public opinion.’

In some cases it seems to be known intuitively by journalists, for example, what public opinion is. And they are happy to remind the public what it is thinking. In other cases the public must be polled to ascertain what it thinks and is faced by leading questions like: ‘Do you feel that the breakdown of law and order is a result of relaxed standards of discipline in the schools?’

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Returning to the usual way of behaving or running a society after a period of instability.

‘Peace has been restored to the streets, the factories to the proper authorities. The situation is being normalized.’

Normalization reassures people that the way things were before was the best form of organization - and that change is undesirable. It also assumes that there is such a thing as normality which everyone should accept. Deviants such as homosexuals, feminists and intellectuals (and in some countries Christians) are to be discouraged.

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The inefficient use of public money by bureaucratic government agencies.

‘Our aim is to eliminate government waste so we will be able to cut your taxes.’

The idea of government waste is usually only linked with certain types of government spending. That spending which is felt to weaken the nation and which is thus ‘wasteful’ is usually the spending which benefits the needy through services of health and welfare. That which strengthens the nation - through military and police services - is not vulnerable to the same criticism.

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A feeling of trust by the business community that conditions will allow a good return on capital invested.

‘The latest wave of industrial unrest is likely to undermine business confidence.’

This assumes that more weight should be given to the sensitivities of businessmen that anyone else. You never hear worries about ‘trade union confidence’ or ‘senior citizen confidence’. But we must not only give the business community the freedom to make money, we must also be nervous about offending it.

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A system which rewards individual initiative and hard work

‘Free enterprise has made this country what it is today.’

This is a useful phrase since few people would claim to be against either freedom or enterprise. But freedom of this type is only of value to people who have the power to take advantage of it - those with money to invest for example. And offering freedom to one group necessarily means restricting the freedom of another - usually those without money to invest.

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This feature was published in the April 1985 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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