by Richard Shorten
Author's Note: The expectation to communicate from personal experience is a crucial driver of modern politics. A recent book I have written, The Ideology of Political Reactionaries, shows how reactionaries have mastered, but subverted, this expectation. Therefore, progressives need to do better. Voice has ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ aspects that need exploring both more explicitly and more creatively. My short discussion distils voice into six foremost elements: argument style, emotional tone, metaphor, prioritising, humour, and personality. Together, these can be wrested into ways for exercising voice in greater (and more meaningful) equality, co-operation, and solidarity: respectively, to reflect, to feel, to connect, to weigh, to confide, and to become energised.
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Academics used to like to define politics as a matter of ‘who gets what, when, and how’. Lately, it has become a matter of who can say what. And how, and when.
‘Culture wars’, ‘wokeism’, and ‘cancel culture’ are all names for things that make people more aware that there is nothing irrelevant or nondescript about voice. Nor is there anything innocent about it. Voice is what people—not just politicians—use to make them real for others. And, it might be added, for themselves. Hence the two parallel expressions, to ‘find one’s voice’, and to ‘give voice’ to others (via an originating act of the giver’s own voice, that is). But ever since the global financial crisis of 2008, progressives have surrendered this ground, and done so meekly. So, in relation to predictable but also unpredictable public issues, reactionaries have grown mutating and enlarging constituencies of support, many proving storm-like and short-lived, but some showing worrying signs of being longer-lasting: enthusiasts for Trumpism post-Trump; immigration and climate change deniers morphing into Covid vaccine sceptics; Zemmouristes, as well as Lepenistes, outlasting the gilets jaunes in France.
The Ideology of Political Reactionaries tries to distill the reactionary voice, to break it down into its ingredients and make it plain. There is a baseline unity to reactionary ideology, notwithstanding its varying content across particular iterations: all reactionary ideology (from Euroscepticism in its mild form to neofascism at its strongest) participates in the prominent sounding of a rhetorical core comprising indignation, decadence, and conspiracy. Aside from the getting the historical and contemporary records straight (reactionism has a shady border with conservatism; reactionary ‘nostalgia’ is chimerical because the message is always more embittered than melancholic; the explanation by post-truth ignores the persistent fetishisation of facts), the study is intended as a nudge towards building a more desirable rhetorical public culture.
How do language, tone, and style connect reactionaries in and across Europe and America’s past and present? What starts to look enduring at least once the fascination with the apparent novelty of digital media is scaled back just a bit? And what do things look like when we lay out beside one another quite diverse packages of words and gestures for comparison and inspection? Such examination ought to be revealing, even if the lessons for progressives will, in the first instance, have to emerge by default inversion. And equally, it will show that ‘who can say what, when, and how’ is not simply a topical problem of politics and culture. It is actually quite an old one.
Reactionaries do not reject the in-vogue imperative to communicate from personal experience. Publicly, and on the surface, they might demean it. But, in truth, they subvert it. Reactionaries know that the authority to speak is closely bound up with personal involvement in what is spoken (i.e., having skin in the game); timing (e.g., taking care not to speak before others have been heard); and manner. They know this, even if their ‘knowing’ should really be understood more as the product of habit and inclination than of implausibly all-seeing calculative intent. On a tentative estimate, they know, and subvert, voice in at least six ways.
Perhaps the first rule of voice in politics is that the task is to make space. Reactionaries recognise this, and one thing they are always sure to do is to make space to reflect. They upend progressive calls to reflection. They do their best, in written and spoken word, to steer any thinking about politics whatsoever through the prior filter of a story about the unstoppability of decline. Such stories—which technically are ‘narratives’ (in the meaningful way, not in the way dulled by generalised over-use to refer to any sense-making exercise whatsoever)—vary in content. But invariably, they are all-absorbing.
Progressives ought to do nothing so grandiose as to craft sweeping counter-narratives. But they must find ways to open up, and in due course expand, alternative spaces for reflection, spaces that that are focused around objects of concern that are simultaneously human and humane. Human, because they will resist being formed around immovable abstractions (which is the historical case of adaptable reactionary fixation around ‘revolution’, ‘defeat’, ‘feminism’, etc.).). Humane, because space-shaped reflection would be unapologetically ethical, impatient with the conjuring of ‘liberalism’ into the enemy, or with the celebration of conflict for opposition’s sake.
Not only as an afterthought, making the space to feel must take up an important place next to making the space to reflect. The objects of concern created by the reactionary voice are self-referencing: reactionaries pity themselves and those like them. This is the glue that binds. It is also the basis for feelings that are externally directed towards what are made into targets, specifically, targets of anger. The sense conveyed that this anger is not something that has been heard to date—that it has been suppressed, unacknowledged, allowed to fester—is how a circle is squared with the timing rule: licence for reactionaries to speak is to have successfully created the impression that those people being spoken ‘for’ have long been unheard, and remain still unheard. But used creatively in collective life, emotional tone of voice makes people attentive—thereafter receptive—to the vulnerability of others, who, moreover, are others in their fullest diversity. Hence moral philosophers talk of the ‘circle’ of concern.
The task, by modulating tone of voice, is to expand that circle, and to do so without de-intensifying attachments in the process. Uplift, good will, faith in others: the promotion of all these things is often made to seem trite, a pathology of the extension of psychotherapeutic language into politics. But that itself is a function of the snare of cynicism in contemporary rhetorical public culture; in turn, a complex cause and effect of reactionary ‘edginess’ in its particular alt-right incarnation. Feelings liable to be dismissed as trite in any case do not exhaust the range of emotions far more likely to be timely to any moment than unspent self-pity: sorrow at wasted lives and livelihoods; outrage, not festering anger, at perpetration, complicity, or indifference.
Making the space to connect is another capability of voice. Metaphor connects the person to other people; it also helps that person to connect things to things. Reactionaries cement fellow-feeling with others who are not really like them, not in a way that couldn’t be challenged by more plausible connections; connections far more immanent in the the structures of social and political experience. Reactionaries do so by act of making the particular universal, or the part into whole (which more technically belongs to the branch of metaphor that is metonymy). In this way, dethroned monarchs, culturally-mocked millionaires, and failed artists can all be made mirrors to the hardships of the truly vulnerable, because the suffering in each of these scenarios—and the suffering of individuals—becomes representative: not statistically or descriptively representative, but symbolically representative. (Victimhood becomes the state of being belittled in whichever way makes meaning reflect back in this conveniently dangled mirror.)
How reactionaries connect things-to-things is by metaphors that are dominantly naturalist and hyper-masculinist. Metaphors from ecology or biology, in particular, dramatise what thereby becomes deep-rooted, health-threatening decline, in idioms that can extend to the frankly carnal. An under-appreciated aspect of the ideology of Eric Zemmour, for example, is the loss of male virility (which, inside his 2014 book The French Suicide, is far more a trope than the national ‘suicide’ of the title). Decoding reactionaries by metaphor is one step towards disarming them, but the next task is to turn the metaphors inside out, to craft them to more humane purpose and effect. One way of doing this is by explicitly reclaiming bodily metaphor, for it is the body which provides human vulnerability with its shared site. Another way of doing so is to take the structure of analogical reasoning (which works on the idea that because you accept something similar already, you will accept something else proposed), to wrest it away from its dominant reactionary or conservative uses (in idealisation of the status quo or status quo ante), and to place it into progressive use. Co-opted analogical reasoning would work on the idea that what has most meaningful prior acceptance is not overtly bound to parochial culture: people’s most pre-existing commitment of all is to be their best selves.
Prioritising by voice is identifying issues and embracing the task to weigh. Reactionaries weigh issues often with outward portent, but, ultimately, trivially. They do so habitually by lists, or by acts of either linguistic or literary brutalism. List arrangements of projected wrongs and grievances allow for the heaping up of externally-directed criticism and censure, fabricating the illusion of rising gravity. By imagined actions (or sometimes by sheer temerity of existing) migrants, ethnic Others or cartoonised social justice warriors can made to bask in the negative spotlight, and on that basis be made to shoulder blame for whole unlikely catalogues of sins. Brutalism in words and sentences is the creation of heightened urgency by graceless transition, jolting an audience into attention; and, by unfortunate correlation, repeated jolting has the simultaneous effect of deadening human sensitivity.
Lists plus brutalism may not exhaust reactionary techniques for deleteriously amplifying concerns, but above all this is a faux seriousness, a seriousness of the shrill or the pompous. What it doesn’t need is more of the same in reply. In the political act of prioritising—which is necessary not primarily because decision-making capacity is finite, but rather because the political imagination is drawn towards specific things and/ or specific persons—the practice of hierarchical ordering is hard to dispel in its entirety, but comes with downsides that may nevertheless be counter-acted. To be sure, listing bona fide wrongs has a dignity that listing imagined injustices does not. However, within contemporary culture, bona fide wrongs have frozen into competitive victimhoods: injury by racism versus class; by sex-based versus gender-based oppression; by historical fascism versus historical colonialism. And one way of chipping away at this (by wakening metaphor again) is to try to introduce alternative spatial orientations into public language: suffering that is neither ‘above’ and ‘below’, nor ‘before’ and ‘after’. Are there ways of juxtaposing experiences that are more consensual than conflictual? Ways that will not cancel out sympathy generated, but render sympathy liable to be reproduced in many directions, even perhaps in ever more fine-grained complexions?
Humour in voice is, or can be, a way by which to commune: to confide, to reassure. In reactionary voice, it is anything but. Psychologists of humour talk of humour style, and reactionary styles of humour tend strongly towards the maladaptive, i.e., aggressive. Rarely do reactionaries participate in the affiliative style of humour which (to play upon the original religious meaning of ‘to commune’ from communion) is capable of firming up human relationships by exchange of thoughts and feelings. Reactionary humour is the humour of put-downs and jibes at out-groups, destructive of bridge-building between people. Fairly recently, in the United States, Sarah Palin—the vice-presidential contender and under-emphasised forerunner of Donald Trump—developed a political style that gave a lot of time to unkind mimicry. In British politics, Nigel Farage experimented with a humour style that drifted into bullying, offset only partially by the kind of jocularity that gestured beyond the aggressive by virtue of being self-effacing and buffoonish: the notional punches-upwards could be unceremoniously dumped for punches-sidewards, soon becoming punches-downwards (recall the public humiliation of Herman van Rompuy in the European Parliament).
In the terms of theories canvassed across the history of thought, then conspicuously often—to the point of being a rule—the humour of reactionaries matches the comedy identified by Hobbes, operating by ridicule and superiority; not the tension-release by laughter observed by Freud, and still less the comedy that arises out of incongruity (between expectation and occurrence, between unconventionally paired ideas). Alternatively, non-Hobbesian humour is only at a very crude level urbane and elitish, or metropolitan because cosmopolitan. And it is very far from being exclusive since (in a last piece of humour taxonomy) it is open to expression in whole range of types: from the dark, dry and droll, through to the satirical, slapstick, and screwball. In France, currently, Eric Zemmour does possess a more stylish line in witticism. His niche in The French Suicide is to observe paradox, presented as incongruity between the intentions of both leftists and liberals and the effects of their policies. But his paradoxes are not really paradoxes: they are wilfully dark contrasts (such as that gay people were freer when encouraged to be discreet about their sexuality, or that straight women could be less guilty about sex when there existed rigid social norms to police their access to it). And in the process, there may be an instructive lesson about the need to unpick nuances in the uses of dark humour: Zemmour’s are wilful contrasts not only in the sense of being false, but also in the sense of being, ultimately, victim- (and not victimiser-)mocking. As such, shorn of the more appealing victim-empathising quality of ‘gallows humour’, the humour in his book is reduced to word-play. Which is clever, but not funny.
Voice also offers, lastly, the chance to inspire, in the possibility of positive response to the comportment of others. This last thing reactionaries know is that expressing viewpoint is simultaneously opportunity to display the virtues one carries. In reactionary practice, those are shallow virtues at best, and misguided inspiration. Charisma is more often bombast. Authenticity is double-edged, and in any event is contradictory to charisma. Bravery is martyring. Bragging should not be mistaken for much inspirational at all. And publicising insider knowledge—Trump’s business prowess, Farage’s Brussels days, Joseph McCarthy’s dogged curiosity—is (as well as in tension with flagging outsider credentials to denigrate ‘expertise’) the accomplice of community-destroying conspiracy claims that are reliably present.
This is not collegiality; not integrity or honesty; not gentleness and generosity; not constancy or meaningful self-knowledge. There is, to appreciate, an intrinsic difficulty in trying to craft the progressive articulation of personality in voice: the infra-person location of vocal chords, or the hand-gripped wielding of the pen, point to the hazard of carrying over-exaltation of individual action into the securing of new collective space, pushing against the collective exchange of perspectives. So, minimally, one part of comportment must tasked with trying to find a balance with modesty, as well as with trying to achieve a particular split: between twin tasks of showing one’s skin in the game and bringing others into it.
It is here, finally, that some existing conceptualisations of voice on the progressive side of politics are suspect. To be sure, from out of the conventions of academic political science, these present accounts improve vastly on the most established, most frequently-cited account: a 1970 text which makes voice into an alternative to ‘exit’, into a grossly individualised phenomenon, and, fundamentally, a matter of interest, not principle (in effect: ‘I’m not very happy about this, so I’m saying so’). But the dominant, progressive accounts are suspect nevertheless, and suspect, specifically, in respect to the conceptualisation of movement. Rightly, they contest the uniform flatness—the stuckness—of reactionary representations of ‘vox populi’: instead, at their best, they stress the importances of co-creating the meaning of experience, and fashioning demands on that basis. And rightly (albeit from a distinct angle), they stress the ‘situatedness’ of voice. Yet working against these stresses, they tend to portray the who-ness of voice as if the issue were pre-settled. Plus, on the issue of what people ought to do with voice once they get there, they are hesitant, such that they under-estimate the complexities of ‘when’ and ‘how’.
Enabling voice, whether for progressives of either a moderate or more radical kind, presently tends to be understood as a single movement: either to or from a single location. Just the direction is reversed. For moderates, the movement is dominantly ‘toward’—in which voice is something graciously presented to somebody, as though receiving a gift-giving guest (‘there you go, here is voice, now use it’). For radicals, the movement is ‘away from’—by beseechment to join something at some distance from a starting point (‘“come to voice” with us’)—and with just a hint that before being exercised, the new joiners’ voices will need to pass through a final stage of screening by older occupants.
The future situational pressures on voice cannot, by nature, be foretold. But if the inverted lessons from reactionary practice are instructive, then the desiderata for better voice will—centrally—comprise maximal inclusion, minimal coercion, or pluralism in balance with empathy. From this starting set of features: to reflect, to feel, to connect, to weigh, to confide, be energised. To genuinely co-create. To use voice so that it sounds—then echoes—in a multitude of directions. Above all, to use voice to make space so that others might find space in it of their own.
 Note that this immovability by abstraction can even be a risk for contemporary progressives, who, following a very timely call for an appreciation of what is ordinary (cf. Marc Stears, Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again [Belknap Press, 2021]), can often be drawn towards abstractifying the value of the ‘everyday’.