Words can be terribly slippery. William Empson in his seminal work on ambiguity from 1930 described the effect of these semantic slips as being either “witty or deceitful”; you can look on the effect of ambiguity as providing interpretive freedom but also the chance they’ll simply steer you in the wrong direction. Poetic language pivots on these moments balanced by the tension of authorial intent, but political language is a different matter. It can quickly get contentious when the interpretative freedom involves important matters that affect people’s lives: deciding if it’s safe to get on a bus, meet a parent, or kiss a loved one.
Consider, for example, the way the government issued perfectly clear instructions about people going outside to exercise so long as they stayed 2 metres apart. In Grappenhall, outside Warrington, Cheshire, over last weekend, people lined up in the street to dance the conga as part of the VE celebrations. They might as well have been dancing circuits through the holes in the government advisory…
Two meters apart? Of course!
Every word of the government advice was strictly observed – they all held onto a rope two meters apart – yet it was still an irresponsible thing to do because it meant that every person in the line danced into the expelled air of their adjacent neighbour. Whoever devised the scheme had obsessed over the literal meaning of the rules rather than considering the intent.
This is the problem of literalism – of taking words in their narrowest sense – rather than contextualism where you draw from a wider pool of knowledge. It is typically likely to happen when instructions are minimal. The US Constitution, for example, is famously cherished for its brevity, which means it either means something very narrow or impracticably broad. The Constitution gives Americans the right to shape their future or limits those rights. The way through this impasse is by considering the intent of the Founding Fathers but, of course, that’s what keeps America’s Supreme Court so busy. You could even make a case that it’s the story of modern America, as literalists step in and object to every progressive amendment.
Literalists are everywhere. A video doing the rounds on social media recently showed of a woman walking into an American convenience store. It’s memorable because she had cut a hole in her facemask to make it easier to breathe. This kind of thinking is not that rare. The woman was simply addressing the problem of having to wear a mask without considering the broader context of why she’d been told to wear a mask.
This is where the British government ran into real problems with their messaging. It needed to be written for literalists, with all the holes suitably plugged so there were no ambiguities about what people should or should not do as we look to ease the lockdown. When the Prime Minister declared that people can exercise more freely than before, what did that mean? It covers everything from one man walking his dog around the park and half of Lincolnshire driving up to the Lake District for the day.
I suspect this is because Boris Johnson is not a literalist. He has a strong grasp of words, which unfortunately means that interpreting what he says requires a more sophisticated reading of language and, indeed, politics.
Ask yourself, was his Sunday evening announcement to the country about giving clear advice or was is the result of political pressure? The government currently enjoys almost unprecedented levels of support, with nine in every ten people supporting the lockdown. There was no need for a roadmap at this stage, except as a sop to those in his cabinet, the party, and the media, who would believe the threat to the economy outweighs the threat to the public’s health.
The result is a message that is thick with ambiguity.
The literal meaning: GO TO WORK.
The subtext: STAY AT HOME.
At times like this, the country needs plain advice. They certainly don’t need the linguistic equivalent of an IKEA instruction manual, where every ambiguity leaves you hammering in a screw or trying to screw in a nail. People need to understand how to cope with real-world problems: when is a bus too crowded to be safe; what do we do if we work in a place that doesn’t take adequate precautions?
These answers need a clear unambiguous plan that even the more literal-minded among us will understand.