Politics of Labelling
By Dr. S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
A primary lesson for all political speakers is to avoid controversial terms particularly to malign somebody or something. Labels, names, and terms carry political significance and have played a significant role in the just-concluded General election. In fact because of our ignorance of historical events and background of organisations, and lack of ability to conduct sensible and orderly political discourses and decent election campaigns, several irrelevant issues came up during electioneering this year with the sole aim of denigrating rival candidates and parties.
Labelling and name calling candidates and parties took the place of issues and policies leading to unnecessary exchange of abuses. People were practically asked to choose between labels and names and not between policies and programmes. Voters were treated like ignorant illiterates.
A case in point is of the new face in the electoral theatre, Kamal Haasan, who ignited a fierce debate in the country over what is reported as his “Hindu terror” remark with reference to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse. He was speaking in an election meeting in an Assembly constituency in Tamil Nadu on behalf of his party candidate.
The highlight of his speech as reported in the media is his depiction of Godse – independent India’s first terrorist – as a Hindu. The connection between the assassin and his religion was not clarified. He has also responded to critics with further assertion that, “If a historical fact I point out hurts you, then this wound will never heal”.
Haasan was booked under Sections 153 A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion) and 295 A (deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion and religious beliefs) of the IPC.
Kamal insists he has used the Tamil word “theeviravadhi” meaning “extremist” and not “bayankaravadhi”, Tamil equivalent of “terrorist”. He applied for and obtained anticipatory bail to avoid arrest. This is not the first time he spoke of Hindu extremism as he himself admitted, but his earlier speeches did not receive this much attention. For some political personalities, proper usage of terms in their mother-tongue or another language is a problem. Still, they are very vocal.
Another leader defending Haasan, is reported to have welcomed his statement adding, “Godse was not only an extremist but also a terrorist …” This episode opens the need for understanding the use of labelling in politics as much as the meaning of terrorism or the character of Godse.
2019 election has no connection with Mahatma Gandhi or Godse or the tragic assassination of the Father of the Nation to be remembered in an election campaign for a by-election to State Assembly in Tamil Nadu. The reference is nothing but an attempt to denigrate the opponent by attributing to him a dangerous link in the past.
Labelling is describing someone or something in a word or short phrase. Its use for communication is unquestionable. It is mostly intended to highlight the fact that the label is a description coming from outside rather than from some intrinsic character of the labelled thing. Thus, label is earned by creating perceptions consciously and unconsciously, or deliberately and incidentally. And label is used to perpetuate usually a negative image of a person or group. As such, it is a strong rhetorical tool.
The speciality of this election is that labels are coined by experts and poll advisors more than being earned by the labelled. A big industry has grown all over the world to collect raw data, separate positive and negative characteristics contained in the data, construct an edifice suitable to one’s purpose with the data, and run a machinery to propagate the image created. Its greatest use is in election period. Labelling and name calling form an important part of this industry. It is going on in full swing in India whereas in the West, it is on decline after its rapid rise.
Labelling in politics is intended to influence our perception, judgement, and behaviour and determines interaction between individuals and groups. Labels confirmed by endless repetitions block individual judgements and affect interaction with the labelled. They promote preconceived notions and presumptive assumptions. In the politics of labels, there is no use for knowledge and experience. It promotes divisive politics.
Name calling is explained as a form of ad hominem, meaning attacking opponents personally as opposed to attacking their policies. In this election, it is also done ad nausium, i.e. repeatedly any number of times. Name calling is a form of verbal abuse, and in politics, it is used as a substitute for rational, fact-based arguments against opponents or ideas.
Political parties conduct election campaigns like marketing and advertising companies, which aggressively push their products. They pick catchy labels and coin rhyming slogans and indulge in repetitions day in and day out. Crowd collection seems to be the object of campaigns conducted on filmy style and supported by audio-visual media.
Labels originated in politics several centuries ago. Perhaps, we never realised that Whig and Tory were terms of abuse introduced in 17th century applied respectively to opponents and supporters of hereditary right of King James; that “rightist” and “leftist” are terms for conservative and liberal groups respectively. Nazi labels, Hitler title, and fascist name have been commonly used in the West in political contests and have entered into India also. These are used as negative symbols.
Between the two World Wars, an organisation called The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) took up a systematic study of “propaganda” – a political strategy adopted by Hitler. The analysis included “name calling” in its list of common rhetorical techniques. It was found that bad names have played a powerful role in the history of the world and in our own individual development.
Bad names have ruined reputations, and incite people to violence. These have been applied to “other” people, groups, tribes, political parties, institutions, neighbourhoods, States, sections of a country, nations, race and so on.
On the other hand, labels are necessary to introduce some order in the chaotic world. It helps categorisation and easy identification of what one wants from a heap of things. The function of putting identification mark of a product on its package is called “labelling”.
Labelling in sociology is the theory how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It was developed in the 1960s. In these days, terrorist and insurgent are labels that carry worst negative connotation. When used in election speeches, public uproar is inevitable.
Incidentally, there is no consensus on the definition of “terrorism”. It is a value-laden term and its usage is prohibited in some places. There is also much controversy over the distinction between “extremism” and “terrorism”. To give any religious association to terrorism is bad politics aimed at dividing peace loving people.
Kamal Haasan’s speech has intensified the unwanted debate on terrorism and religion, which is already going on among forces wanting to reap political benefits from dividing the society.—(INFA)