Nation of Beancounters

Drumbeat words

Posted in On Discourse, Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on June 22, 2013

Whenever the Delhi University administration does the kind of stupid things it is inclined to do, posters and flyers appear all over campus – distributed by assorted political/activist groups – urging students to protest against the action. Certain words appear often, including “neoliberal”, “corporate”, “establishment”, “fascist”, and “capitalist”. The word “hegemony” also turns up on some of the poorly written ones.

These words serve a purpose – they signal to students that what is being opposed here is not merely the shutting down of a photocopy shop, but the onslaught of the market. They are not merely protesting a fee hike, but the removal of education from the public sphere. They are not fighting a specific action, but waging a battle which is part of a larger war. The upside of this message is that students who are against (say) capitalism are more likely to show up to protest. The downside is that students who favour free markets are less likely to show up, even if they are otherwise against this move. I call such such terms drumbeat words*, for the drumbeats that (supposedly) invigorate soldiers as they march into battle. Writers do not necessarily intend to use them, but often end up doing so out of habit. Needless to say, every ideology has it’s share of such words; from the right-wing we have talk about the “social fabric” and the strength of a nation, and from feminists we have talk of “The Patriarchy.”

Drumbeat words are an example of loaded language – they influence people to take sides on an issue according to existing ideologies. There’s nothing wrong with using such words, if your aim is to rally the troops, if you believe that the number of people that you inspire exceeds the number of people you alienate, and if you believe that the short-run benefits of mobilization exceed the long-run harms of polarization. However, if your aim is to analyze an idea, or persuade a wide audience, it is best to avoid them. You will lose feedback from people who are on your “side”, and support from people who aren’t. The best way to identify such words is to ask yourself “would my opponents use this term?” If you wish to make a point about how an idea ties in with a larger issue, make it explicitly and clearly so that people can reject this point without rejecting the others. If you’re a reader, you may find yourself alienated by such words, which means that you will lose exposure to fresh ideas. It is best to develop a mental filter that deletes or modifies them as you read.

* It’s possible that another term for this already exists. If so, please let me know in the comments.

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