Multi-party politics #2: Sorry for being so awesome

(This is the second instalment in the multi-party politics miniseries. If you missed the first one, start here.)

On 10th Jan 2022, an email from Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary was leaked. It had been sent on 20th May 2021 to over one hundred people, inviting them to “make the most of this lovely weather and have socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening”. The recipients were also asked to “bring your own booze!” Given that the UK was in the height of lockdown at the time, the reaction of the public and press to this was as intense as might be expected.

After a day of relative silence, Johnson gave what some have described as an apology:

Mr Speaker, I want to apologise. I know that millions of people across this country have made extraordinary sacrifices over the last eighteen months. I know the anguish that they have been through, unable to mourn their relatives, unable to live their lives as they want, or to do the things they love. And I know the rage they feel with me, and with the government I lead, when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules are not being properly followed by the people who make the rules. And though I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, I have learned enough to know that there were things we simply did not get right. And I must take responsibility.

Number Ten is a big department with the garden as exte- as an extension of the office, which has been in constant use because of the role of fresh air in stopping the virus. And when I went into that garden just after six on the 20th of May 2020 to thank groups of staff before going back into my office twenty-five minutes later to continue working, I believed implicitly that this was a work event. But Mr Speaker, with hindsight, I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.

And I should have recognised that, even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there would be millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all, inside or outside, and to them, and to this house, I offer my heartfelt apologies. And all I ask is that S- Sue Gray be allowed to complete her inquiry into that day and several others so that the full facts can be established and I will of course come back to this house and make a statement.

There’s a lot of research in linguistics into the speech act of apologising, but I’ll just focus on just two components: the sincerity condition, and the propositional content. For something to qualify as a real apology, speech act theory argues that you have to mean it. The sincerity condition is not unique to apologies, and its absence can even have legal consequences, e.g. when someone at the alter is coerced into saying “I do”, rather than marrying of their own free will.

Anyway, the sincerity issue here is pervasive, but it is tied up with the propositional content – or in this case, the lack of it. To apologise meaningfully, there needs to be some sort of wrongdoing that the apologising party is somehow responsible for. So how do these two conditions factor into Johnson’s statement? Well, he opens with a claim that he “wants to apologise” (a phrase to which I always want to reply, “okay, well, go on then” mainly because I am a jerk) and then later on he says, “I offer my heartfelt apologies”…

But what exactly is he apologising for? What is the propositional content?

Read the statement carefully and you’ll find that it’s actually not clear. Like, at all. Johnson states that he can understand why people are angry “when they think that […] the rules are not being properly followed”. Think is a non-factive verb, just like believe or assume. (Factive verbs include know and confirm.) If I say, “They think I’m joking” the implication is that I’m really not. So by saying that people think the rules aren’t being properly followed, Johnson is craftily implying that they really are.

And that’s not all. He says that there are “things we did not get right”, but there is absolutely no scope to that assertion. It’s the closest we get to an admission of fault, sure, but it could mean anything from using the wrong postage to killing thousands of innocent people. Literally anyone could say that there were things they did not get right and it would provide no useful information whatsoever about their integrity or competence or criminality.

Johnson continues by saying that he “must take responsibility”, but again, and increasingly, for what? The vague things not gotten right that could amount to nothing more than returning library books late? The covid rules that are being followed?

When we get to the event that caused all the controversy, the socially distanced drinks in the sun, Johnson states that he went into the garden “to thank groups of staff”, that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”, and that he went “back into my office twenty-five minutes later to continue working.”

So once more, propositionally, what is he apologising for? Thanking his staff, believing them to be working, and then returning to work himself? Like I said, for an apology to make sense, there has to be some “guilty” event, however trivial. If he had apologised, for instance, for failing to recognise that this was actually a party, for not thanking his staff adequately, or even for knocking over a wine glass, then it would make some sense. “I apologise for boosting morale and working hard” lacks the propositional content necessary, and because we can’t fulfil that, it’s difficult to see how this can be sincere.

But it doesn’t end there. Did you notice the word implicitly? I spotted this the first time, and mulled over it, but I wouldn’t have bothered further, except that it resurfaced again a few days later on 16th Jan. This was because more reports emerged that at least two people had told Johnson to cancel “the party” for breaching guidelines. In response to these allegations, Downing Street replied, “It is untrue that the prime minister was warned about the event in advance. As he said earlier this week he believed implicitly that this was a work event.”

So, there it is again, and that makes it worth a little bit more attention. At the surface level, we might be satisfied in thinking that this implicitly means something like “unconsciously”, or “absolutely”, since that’s what a dictionary would tell us. However, attested usage can sometimes throw up some remarkable patterns, so I trawled a handful of corpora (BNC, BNC2014, BE2006, UKWaC) for belie* implicit* and implicit* belie*. (The use of the wildcard is important here: implicit* catches both implicit and implicitly, and belie* catches belief, beliefs, believe, believing, etc.) I then manually checked every one of the fifty-two hits this returned. Remarkably, just under 70% of them (35) involved the belief being problematic in some way. For instance, certain ethnic groups implicitly believed themselves superior to others. People believed implicitly in those who were later shown to be liars. Problematic science was built on implicit beliefs that were proven false. When we get implicit* and belie* together, then, this conjures up a subtle semantic ghost that the implicit believer has been tricked, or lied to, or otherwise misled.

Of course, it’s more probable that the implicitly in this case is serving some other crafty legal purpose, but its insertion may have been just as much about the subtle insinuation that Johnsons is the innocent victim in all of this who has been duped by those around him.

Anyway, moving on, Johnson also produces this linguistic slam-dunk: “even if [the “work event”] could be said technically to fall within the guidance…” Yes. Look at that tiny little if-conditional there, a magical little pivot that lifts the whole sentence out of the cold, hard realms of fact and up into the rarefied air of philosophical debate. “It could be said technically to fall within the guidance, or it could be said to be a huge violation of the rules and a catastrophic failure of judgement, who knows, lol.” For good measure it’s even a passive with that charming little throw-away, technically, in there, just to nod at the fact that they might have fulfilled the letter of the covid laws, but accidentally necked the spirit.

All this said, there is a very obvious reason why this pseudo-apology is a bloodless, guiltless, insincere affair. Real apologies are, by their very nature, admissions of guilt. They identify the wrongdoing and, in many cases, though certainly not all, they convey the recognition that the one apologising is responsible. An apology from Johnson for knowingly attending a party during lockdown would be a clarion call to a whole cavalry of lawyers to suit up, mount legal challenges, and charge. At the same time, however, Johnson couldn’t leave the matter unaddressed, and to mollify the rising outrage, he had to produce something. A real apology would be a political mass extinction event for the Conservatives, so he needed a chimaera – something that could pass for an apology without actually being one. And this is the result. In it, we have the word itself, but it lacks the admission of wrongdoing, and therefore any real claims to sincerity.

But Johnson’s apology doesn’t fall into a void. There is a straggling effort by some to support and bolster him, and we’ll get into how well that all played out in the third instalment.

Multi-party politics #1: Not the replacement to the two-party system I was hoping for

Something I did not anticipate when the pandemic started was just how many layers of life it would infect. Perhaps it should have been obvious how pernicious it would be; that like any global event, it would invade everything from eyesight tests to contract awards to marital conduct and beyond. Despite this track-record and more besides, the comorbidity that I certainly never saw coming was Partygate – the ever-escalating revelations that whilst the rest of the nation stayed home and sipped quarantinis, figures from across the government seem to have been hauling suitcases of wine back to work for a range of… “events”. The fomenting question of this precise moment is whether any of these gatherings breached covid guidance, lockdown rules, or possibly even the law.

At best this all sounds party political, and at worst, possibly even criminal, yet this whole saga has also been a curiously linguistic affair. In particular, forensic linguists like myself have been watching politicians attempt various rhetorical rhumbas around this scandal as they have tried to mount defences and offer explanations that did not inadvertently implicate themselves or anyone else in assorted wrongdoings. After a slow start, the instances have become so numerous that it’s now almost impossible to keep pace.

So, pour yourself a lexicojito, don a Sherlocution deerstalker, and get ready to cast your eye over some of the more remarkable Partygate proclamations in this open-ended multi-part(y) miniseries. (Yes, the jokes are all this bad. No, I’m not sorry.)

The passive-aggressive voice

Our casebook opens on 30th Nov 2021 when the first news broke about possible Christmas parties in Downing Street. A spokesperson responded to that revelation with, “Covid rules have been followed at all times” and the next day during Prime Ministers’ Questions, Boris Johnson stated that “all guidance was followed completely in Number 10”. Syntactically, both statements are presented as facts, and the latter one particularly comes directly from Johnson.

However, by 08th Dec, matters had shifted. When pursued about the topic again, Johnson responds with, “I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”. There is no more implicit ownership of the claim here anymore. Now Johnson has been assured. He is reporting what someone else has told him, with the bonus that if his mystery informant is wrong, he can simply pass the buck back to them.

But there’s another subtle strategy at work. These statements are all passive constructions, and they’ve all had their agents deleted. No, not a sinister subplot in a le Carré novel, though perhaps it deserves to be. Consider again: Guidance was followed and rules were not broken… by whom? The whom is the agent (an individual or a group) and they have been summarily deleted. Cognitively, we might gloss over this gap with some vague hypothetical agent of our own. The ordinary person could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson was talking about anyone in Downing Street. After all, who else could he reasonably mean.

The very wooliness of the deleted agent’s identity is also useful to Johnson. If challenged later about exactly who he had been referring to when he made those early claims, Johnson could argue that he meant “only the Cabinet” or “only his own office” or some other more defensible group. The attempt might not succeed, of course, but the missing agent leaves a space in which he can at least attempt the manoeuvre.

There’s even more to these passives than meets the eye, though. In isolation (of the non-pandemic kind) passives can be innocuous and even perfectly innocent, but these particular choices are thrown into stark relief when another week brings with it another linguistic slink. On 13th Dec, when asked once more about the ongoing revelations, Johnson replies, “I can tell you once again that I certainly broke no rules”.

Ah yes. We’ve gone from rules were not broken to I broke no rules. All at once, Johnson’s grammatical voice has switched from the passive that might broadly exonerate everyone to an active that protects only himself. No more deleted agents. Now just defensive assertions. This syntactic shift is intriguing. In a mere thirteen days, Johnson has radically reduced his exposure from effectively guaranteeing everyone’s conduct to only guaranteeing his own.

One explanation for this change in stance might be that Johnson had either finally learned that the rules hadn’t been followed, or he had reason to believe that he was about to be openly contradicted by media revelations. (NB. You might say, “Sure, Claire, nice post-hoc analysis”, but I did catch this one at the time, so yes, I am feeling faintly smug about it. The dig about what the word “rules” actually means though? That was a fluke. I genuinely did not expect them to actually come back and say “maybe the rules were a bit shit”.)

Anyway, moving on, that sudden divestment of absolute confidence takes us neatly onto the next linguistic trick.

What even is a party anyway?

Party politics and social semantics

Semantics is the area in linguistics that looks at what words mean – their denotations (crudely, their dictionary definitions), their connotations (the emotional baggage they develop), and so forth. As the various revelations have broken in the media, politicians and spokespeople have put a lot of energy into avoiding and refuting the word party. The actual guidelines and laws tended to discuss gatherings, but party was the critical concept that kept rising to the top, and for good reason. One could understand why work colleagues might gather, but the idea that those gatherings might actually be parties during a pandemic, in breach of the very rules and regulations set by the people doing the partying, even as the rest of the country was following lockdown, is beyond egregious. And the net result of the political pushback on party was that spokespeople and politicians began to scramble for other words instead.

The stories initially broke with claims about Christmas parties, one with “drinks, nibbles, and games” and, in other revelations, a Secret Santa. A spokesperson later replied, “There was not a party. […] It is simply just a statement of fact”. Then, a few days later a video of Allegra Stratton was released claiming that this had been a “business meeting”.

You know, the kind with “cheese and wine” and “no social distancing”. And as far as everyone was concerned, though Allegra never said the words “Christmas party”, that’s exactly what plenty of people inferred.

A large gathering in the Number 10 garden (where there was also wine and cheese and social distancing was not being consistently observed) started out as a “meeting out of hours” until Dominic Raab arrived on various sets to confuse matters spectacularly. The seeds of this were first sown when he stated that a “formal party” – presumably one with suits? – would have been in breach of the rules (begging the question whether an informal party would have been fine), but he then reversed back over this perplexing assertion by stating that the Number 10 garden gathering couldn’t have been a social occasion because the attendees were “all in suits, or predominantly formal attire”. That’s quite the logical singularity there. Formal parties are so completely impossible in the Raab timeline that the moment you arrive at one in a suit, it instantly transforms into something else.

But that wasn’t enough. Raab complicated this even further by adding that, “This wasn’t a social occasion, is was staff having a drink after work.” Sure. And this isn’t a glass of water. It’s a receptacle of H2O. What else exactly is drinks after work if not a social occasion?

But Raab wasn’t alone with his half-dimmed semantic gaslighting. For the week of Christmas itself, there was a brief lull, and then as 2021 slipped into the merciful oblivion of the recent past, screenshots of an especially damning email exploded across the front pages like New Years’ fireworks.

I’ll get stuck into that in the next instalment.

McCall it what you like, but you didn’t invent it: “menopausing”

In June of this year, a couple of months ago as I write this, the Intellectual Property Office received an application to trade mark the word menopausing. Not especially exciting news, all things given. Nor was the fact that, on Friday the 20th of August, that trade mark was formally published. Indeed, thousands of trade marks are registered every year, and this extremely commonplace matter would likely have gone entirely unnoticed, except for one detail. The trade mark owner was listed as Davina McCall. That’s the Davina of Big Brother fame (amongst other things) whose current life course seems to plot generally towards the eighth house of Gwyneth Paltrow rising.

Back to the trade mark for menopausing. The matter may have passed everyone else on earth by, but somehow, in the predawn hours, a single Daily Mail thread vibrated, and immediately journalist Katie Hind rapelled down from that gigantic web to chalk a horrified outline round the matter in the shape of wronged menopausal women everywhere.

The headline was not flattering, and the content itself was unrepentant in its allusions: Continue reading

Digby, Lord Jones: the man who took on linguistics and lost

Over the past forty-eight hours, an individual by the name of Digby Jones has pulled off a remarkable linguistic hat-trick. In Act I, apropos of nothing, Digby launches into a lengthy complaint about Alex Scott’s accent. He’s doubled-down on it and keeps saying it’s about “elocution”, despite the fact that around 200 linguists have told him what he’s commenting on really is accent, but what would we all know. We’re just PhDs in the subject. Anyway, in Act II, as the backlash mounts, he complains that he is now being cancelled. (Remember, it’s only cancel culture if it comes from the Cancélle region of France. Otherwise it’s just the sparkling white consequences of your actions. At some point I’m going to write a post about what “cancel culture” actually means but I don’t have the strength of character today.) And then in Act III, he tops it all off by describing Alex Scott as “coloured”. If you don’t know why that last one is bad but you’re striving to be a better person, start with this primer from the BBC.

Honestly, it’s been so much that at points I started to wonder if he was a parody account, but sadly not only is he real, he is a mouthpiece for a lot of people who think just like him. So let’s carry out a neat linguistic post mortem just on Act I of this very public body of evidence, and see where a few of the problems kick in. Continue reading

Five reasons why online anonymity is here to stay, and why it’s (mostly) good

I’ve written about this before, but in the wake of the appalling racist abuse faced by members of the England men’s football team, there has been yet another (well-meaning) call to “ban anonymity on the internet”, and variations on this theme. I understand why this is so popular. Anonymity can be intoxicating and just as some people get happy-drunk, others start swinging fists. In just the same way, this Gyges effect can breed some of the worst kinds of behaviour online. People become unidentifiable and next thing they’re murdering the king and seizing the crown, or pouring out racist tirades on Twitter. A knee-jerk reaction, then, is to remove the invisibility ring from their finger. Snatch away the mask. Pull up the rock. Expose the creeps hiding in the darkness beneath.

But removing anonymity from the internet will not be the glorious utopia that people imagine. In fact, it would actually be quite the opposite. For many, it would be a dangerous, living nightmare, fraught with appalling human rights atrocities and daily fear of persecution. Here are just five reasons why: Continue reading

Drug-dealer vs NHS cancer pharmacist: where does serious end, and satire begin?

On the 18th of June, a political Twitter account tweeted the following:

Serving Labour MP Admits to Selling Drugs

(Wayback link)

 

And then there was a link, but we’ll come back to this later.

This caught my eye for a few reasons, but perhaps the most obvious is that it was so surprising, I went to fact-check it, and was gobsmacked at what it actually meant.

So what’s the problem with this tweet? Well, perhaps the most reasonable interpretation is that the person in question – this serving Labour MP – is a drug dealer, and therefore a criminal.

In fact, Taiwo Owatemi is an NHS cancer pharmacist, and on the 14th of June, the Register of Members’ Interests was updated to declare that “From 5 June 2021 until further notice” Owatemi would be a “Locum Pharmacist for Tesco, Shire Park, Kestrel Way” and that she would “work shifts on an ad hoc basis as required” (TWFY).

So did Owatemi “admit to selling drugs”?

Yes.

But also?

No.

That’s because there are at least two distinct interpretations to “admits to selling drugs” and whilst “trained and registered pharmacist legally dispensing medication” is one, another is “criminal drug-dealer selling illegal substances”. And I would argue quite strongly that the average person who reads the tweet is more likely to arrive at the latter. How do we know this? Well, we could test it on people and ask them what they thought it meant, but luckily, corpus linguistics can show us much more quickly what we tend to mean when we say things like this. Continue reading

Cummings and ghostings: Who wrote Dom’s statement?

Introduction: if love is a battlefield, politics is a bonfire

As the Dominic Cummings v Boris Johnson battle rages across the headlines, it caught my eye that two high profile figures have both noted similar, rather interesting points. The first figure was Robert Hutton, who, at 3:03pm on the 23rd of April 2012 (three days ago as I write this) tweeted:

“Look, the point of getting journalists to attribute a quote to “friends” or “allies” is that you have plausible deniability. There’s no point if the quote sounds so absolutely like you that it just looks like you always refer to yourself in the third person.”

He then includes a small screenshot that, judging by the style and font, looks like a quote from The Telegraph (but I can’t check to credit them properly because paywall 🤷‍♀️‍). The text of that is thus:

“Allies of Mr Cummings have hit back at Number 10 for starting “a war they can’t win”, adding: “Dom doesn’t care about all this stuff and they’re in gov. It’s like the Americans going into Vietnam – they may be able to drop big bombs but in a war of attrition, the rebel always wins.””

This first case is fun, and it would make a nice little study for uses such as gov (possibly some sort of written correspondence that’s been copied and pasted?) and the types of analogies that Cummings routinely makes (does he fall back on war examples a lot?), but realistically it’s a bit short so whilst tempting, I left it alone.

But then, just fifteen hours and 29 minutes later, at 6:32am on the 24th of April 2021, former Labour politician Alastair Campbell tweeted:

“Interesting change of style in Cummings’ latest blog. From long, rambling and incontinent, to rather tight and focused, as though he had the help of an experienced journalist who knew how to land more blows with fewer words. Anyone seen @michaelgove ?”

Continue reading

Top of the populi: the most tweeted pictures, videos, links, issues, names, emoji, swearwords and more in GE19

CAUTION: THIS POST CONTAINS A LOT OF SWEARWORDS. BECAUSE I ANALYSED SWEARWORDS. BUT ALSO JUST BECAUSE.

It’s twenty four hours since the Conservatives won a remarkable majority in the 2019 General Election. There has already been an avalanche of nuanced (and not so nuanced) debate about quite whether Johnson won, or Corbyn lost, about whether Brexit is The Beginning or The End, and on, and on, and on.

This post is going to deal with exactly none of that stuff. If you want serious business, go stick your face in Politico or the FT. (I like the FT, by the way. This isn’t a dig at them.) If what you’d like right now is something lighter, but still surprisingly informative (er, maybe) then I present here a range of probably useless, but possibly interesting facts about twenty-four hours of Twitter data gathered during the final critical hours of the 2019 UK General Election. This blog post tells you all about the top devices, videos, pictures, links, names, places, issues, emotions, and swearwords, pretty much in that order, so if you came here for all the fucks, just scroll waaaaay down to the bottom. Similarly, if you want to just skip down to the start of the fun stuff, click here. Otherwise, if you appreciate a little data salad and caution sauce with your result reuben, then keep reading. Continue reading

Academia is a cake-eating contest, in which the prize for eating the most is… more cake

Oh the weather outside is dreary

And marking is making you weary

And you’ve got that draft to revise

And that grant! And reviews! And replies!

Something we talk a lot about in academia is work-life balance. We have committees on it. We hold meetings about it. I’ve seen workshops scheduled on it that ran from 2pm till 8pm with apparently no sense of irony. Everyone sings the same song, and yet, systematically, the attacks on our free time come from all sides. Most of us feel pushed into a 100% teaching/admin load, with another 33% on top for research during evenings and weekends. And most of us feel a sinking abyss of guilt when we say no to other people because our refusal seems, in the short-term, to leave them with even more to do, or to stem from us not doing our fair share.

This post is all about being selfish. It is about protecting your free time (whenever you decide to schedule that free time, morning, noon, night, I don’t care). It is about respecting and supporting your own physical and psychological well-being. And it is about stemming the infinite avalanche of crap that will otherwise continue to pour onto your desk and into your inbox.

This is a Five Step Plan to a Better You. It will give you shinier hair. Longer nails. Sparklier teeth. Smoother skin. More toes. Literally everything you ever wanted, except for all those things I just listed. But really, it should lead to a better you, because you will get the time you should have to be you, and do stuff that makes you you, and it will build in emotional and logistical reserves for the times when shit gets hyper-busy.

It will also, hopefully, help you to recognise your limits, and stop you from disappointing people in future by preventing you from saying, “Yes” to something that it will be virtually impossible for you to do.
Continue reading

Post mortem: dissecting letters from experts

(Get it? POST mortem? Because it came by… po- never mind.)

This is the unexpected third part of what has turned into a disinformation trinity. I hadn’t expected the first part in late November (the Conservatives’ factcheckUK saga), I was marginally less surprised at the second instalment in early December (the three big parties’ “local newspapers”), and by this third volume, I have hit a wall of weary acceptance. A single instance can be discounted as anomalous, but three is a pattern. A tiresome, dangerous, corrosive pattern that suggests a much wider comfort with behaviours that the electorate find problematic than I, at least, had previously thought.

So what’s the story for this latest and (hopefully!) final chapter before the General Election strikes? Somewhere throughout November 2019, the Liberal Democrats started sending out letters. Here are two exemplars – one that is fairly representative of those distributed in England, and one that seems to be fairly representative of those sent in Scotland. Continue reading