What I’m reading: Language and Power


I am currently studying Religion in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. As part of the literature course, our professor has asked us to write a bibliographical review of sources that we may use for our thesis. I have chosen to write my thesis on media and its effect on immigration policy. Therefore, I will be reviewing articles and books that focus mostly on the refugee crisis sparked in part by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

Critical discourse analysis is the study of language as social practice. The analysis is mostly leftist and oppositional. In Norman Fairclough’s book Language and Power (2015), he argues that language has been changed by a neoliberal, globalist and capitalist society in order to suppress resistance and individualise issues that are caused by social ills. This book will be particularly helpful in revealing how conservative media outlets in the United Kingdom, the United States and France control and constrain the audience (Fairclough 2015).

There are many ways media may control and constrain the discourse, especially in public, one-way communication such as TV broadcasts and newspaper articles, either by suppressing certain voices or placing more emphasis on ‘powerful’ voices (Fairclough 2015 and Bell 1991). One important way of suppressing certain voices is by creating a standard language and making anyone who does not speak that standard language seen as either less educated or less reliable (Fairclough 2015). Though Fairclough uses the example of Standard British English and Received Pronunciation (2015), this happens in the United States as well; African American Vernacular English [AAVE] is seen as non-standard and inferior. For French, the standard is the French spoken in France and not its former colonies; television news broadcasts will often put subtitles under people speaking non-standard French, though they may be perfectly understandable.

One way that capitalism has been particularly invasive and insidious is its use of social justice and change type language in order to sell a product. Most recently, Colin Kaepernick as the face of Nike and Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf ad for Pepsi, the former hailed and the latter panned, has made consumerism a form of political discourse (Fairclough 2015). By building a certain ‘image’ of their company, these multi-national companies can hide behind language of resistance whilst creating more consumers for their products.

Social change in general has taken a blow by the creation of centre-left parties that have taken on neoliberal, capitalist ideals and deemphasising their pasts as socially progressive, anti-capitalist parties. Hence New Labour and New Democrats in the United Kingdom and the United States respectively and Emmanual Macron’s République en Marche (The Republic on the Move) in France. By erasing their more socialist pasts (or, in the United States’s case, completely switching ideologies after the Southern Democrats jumped ship after the Civil Rights amendment passed), these parties have capitulated to the idea that capitalism is the only way forward and so must work within that parameter (Fairclough 2015).

Fairclough’s book is going to be very helpful in dismantling the ways the news media has constructed the language surrounding the plight of the refugees and asylum seekers in the critical period of 2011-2016, and the current language of immigrants in general.

photo: Bruce Emmerling