When it comes to the contest of ideas, conservatives are taking control of the broader cultural language and winning. Progressives must re-think their language, writes Jonathan Brown.
Australians aren't ones to mince words when it comes to sharing what we really think. We're known for being cynical, snarky, upfront and incredibly direct. We've taken to social media networks like Facebook and Twitter in a big way - often dominating global conversation. It's no wonder that programs like the ABC's Q&A and SBS' Insight regularly feature as major "trending" topics - we love to voice our opinions.
In an age where we can read, see and hear thousands of opinions in an instant you can easily see the kinds of themes that are dominating public conversation. In the last few years we've seen a plethora of opinions shared by Australians on topics such as asylum seekers, the economy, gay marriage, climate change, politics, gender and more. We're more aware than ever of how politicians and media seek to influence us on these topics and there's one thing that I think has become particularly noticeable in the last couple of years.
Australia is in the throes of a great war on language - and progressives are losing.
You only need to look at the words of Rupert Murdoch speaking at the annual Lowy Lecture to see how progressives have lost control of the conversation - somehow we've let one of the richest, most influential and recognisable members of the global media and business elite turn the word "elitist" into the latest attack word against progressives. Almost unquestioned we've let one of the most (to use his words) narrow-minded and stuffiest of elitists turn "elitism" into anything that doesn't represent a pro-business, pro-conservative philosophy - and it's working. Murdoch has led a very powerful narrative which turns progressive thinkers and leaders into "stuffy elitists"
Another example is gay marriage. As the rest of the world finally moves on, Australia is still caught on the semantics of the word "marriage". Despite a clear back history showing a diversity of understandings of the word "marriage" somehow "between a man and a woman" has been accepted as a largely unquestionable fact. Read the comment sections of an article about gay marriage and you'll see how powerfully this narrative has made its way into the mindsets of many Australians.
Asylum seekers is another area in which the language war rages with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison making it clear that he wants asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be spoken about as illegals. At the time of Morrison's initial directive to his department the ALP's Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles referenced just how important language is in policy debates saying "This is an area where language is bullets: it is really important that we are careful about what language we use and that we depoliticise this area of policy."
If language is being used as bullets - then conservatives are using bazookas and flamethrowers whilst progressives are firing back on their own. The problem for progressives is that whilst they preach to the already converted - conservatives are taking control of broader cultural language and winning.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard even conceded one of her biggest mistakes was "not contesting the label "tax"" when it came to the ALP's toxic carbon tax. The now Prime Minister Tony Abbott may not be one of the most eloquent orators in recent Australian history, but he was (throughout his years of opposition) and continues to be a master of dominating language politics. Whenever he speaks his words echo throughout the day and hit their target audience with maximum effect.
If progressives want to bring their ideas and their parties back to electoral sustainability they must take back the conversation and stop letting conservatives and economic elites win the language war. They must not only contest the language used by their ideological opponents, but redefine the language and reframe the language to make sense to the broader community. They managed to do it with the Howard Government's wildly unpopular WorkChoices legislation, but it has to be relatable beyond their own progressive audience. Merely responding on issues like asylum seekers or gay marriage - progressives need to find new ways to dominate the language again and it work it to their advantage to the broader, mainstream public.
As Australians increasingly use tools like social media to voice their opinions (often parroting/reflecting the dominant narratives) - the best thing progressives can do at this point is come up with their own weapons in the language war and take back control of the conversation.
Jonathan Brown is a media educator based in Melbourne.