The importance of language

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, spoke during Graduation Week at ceremonies to congratulate the College’s newest graduates.

Here, she explains the importance of the skills graduates from Birkbeck learn in the course of their studies and how it is vital, now more than ever, that the use of language needs to be reasoned to foster democratic debate  

You have all been studying hard to earn the degrees you have received today.  In so doing you have come to appreciate the important of being correct in how you express yourself:  mathematicians will appreciate that a digit out of place; a miscalculation can destroy chapters of effort.

Those of you studying social sciences, history and law will be finely tuned to the need for a precise and consistent pursuit of what is exact.  Those of you graduating in philosophy will have tangled directly with the nature of truth itself and when and how to present a statement – and to refute it.

I hope you excuse my telling you what you already know: because this matter of language is playing an important role in the life of not only our country, but in the world at large.  In two major arenas of public activity – the American election and the Brexit situation – language and how it is used is coming under great strain, not to say misuse and deliberation falsification.

Does it matter? It is only politics after all; it is only election rhetoric.  My case is that it matters very much – and that now, more than ever, the nature of language needs to be safeguarded by those trained in analysis, logic and deduction; that is, people such as yourselves.  I encourage you to welcome and uphold that responsibility.  Here’s why.

We have lived through an American election that insults the reputation of that great country and the foresight and shrewdness of its founding fathers.  When one candidate can insult and distort the role of the other with such impunity – speaking of Hillary Clinton as a criminal, deserving of prison, even a possibly target for direct violence – then civilised language has reached its limit.

When there is nowhere else to go with language then strong feeling gets expressed in action – often violent action. What is significant is that the strong statement itself – eye-catching  but wrong and  taken up by the media – is unyielding to correction.

It is no good to say, ‘she isn’t a criminal’, or more challengingly ask, ‘where’s the evidence?’ Damage has already been done.  Damage in public life is what we seek to avoid.  Damage – harm to our civil life and to our political institutions – can be long term and permanently undermining. That is why respect for language and the delicacy which it can express subtle ideas needs to be part of all our – of all your – lives.

The situation with Brexit is equally alarming.  It is one of the most serious changes to our constitution in more than 50 years. Unfortunately it has been  subjected to what many of us recognised as extravagant exaggeration: quite  separate from the very important issues that deserve thoughtful  assessment and judgement.  “Come out of the EU and the NHS can get the millions saved”; “Turkey is joining the EU so soon millions of Turks will be coming to Britain” – these  widely publicized slogans were to distort the very sound case to be made for leaving the EU and damage the reputation of  leading politicians  for the foreseeable future.

Well, OK, they’re politicians and they can be expected to be casual with language. Then last week a national newspaper accused three High Court judges, ruling on the rights of Parliament to discuss Brexit or not of being ‘enemies of the people’. Historically enemies of the people have been subject to charges of treason, to Star Chamber trials, to torture and execution.  It is a use of language that is well beyond any civilised exchange of opinions. It is of course, quite correct to challenge judgements made by the courts – there are checks and balances that allow us to do so – and such a challenge will indeed take place.

My point is that the use of such emotive and irrational language drives out the more subtle arguments that are the nature of democratic exchange and leads to a gross distortion of what is actually the intended case.

While we all digest the prospect of Brexit let me address some of the crucial issues close to the heart of Birkbeck.  We are an open society:  look around at the diversity by age, gender, ethnicity and faith of those around you.  This is society as we want it to be.  We at Birkbeck know it works:  it brings happiness and fulfilment into many lives. It promotes discourse, harmony, tolerance and civic responsibility among those who come here.

We rejoice that you too have been and I hope will remain part of such a society and take into your homes, your jobs and your communities the values we all share.  Do not let false and damaged language persuade you otherwise. The society of learning is global, interconnected and mutually respectful:  you are all welcome to its ranks.

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