“Tropes” – The Curse Of Contemporary Public Discourse


 


trope
noun

1./ a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression. “both clothes and illness became tropes for new attitudes toward the self”

2./ a significant or recurrent theme; a motif. “she uses the Eucharist as a pictorial trope”


The problem with “tropes” in any discourse is that they are essentially interpretive and require interpolation (the insertion of something of a different nature into something else). They involve the ‘discovering’ and ‘decoding’ of malign meanings, motives and intentions from statements which in and off themselves may not be malign.

If someone were to make the assertion that, “Indian and Pakistani immigrants are good at running corner shops”, this is, in and of itself, a fairly innocuous statement that contains an  element of truth, i.e. in the UK Indian and Pakistani immigrants have in the last 50 years made great success out of running corner shops and local grocery stores.

So what’s the problem? Well, anyone with a liberal sensitivity will have immediately  been on the alert reading that sentence because the statement while containing some truth, is also regarded as a racist “trope”. Why? Because it is an idea that generalises about millions of people and because it is an idea that is sometimes used by racists to characterise people of Indian and Pakistani heritage in order to denigrate, demean and limit them.

Thus some people of a liberal bent would read the fairly innocuous statement that “Indian and Pakistani people are good at running corner shops”, as in fact a racist statement in and off itself, even though the speaker may never have intended it to be.

What if I were to make a statement like “It is wrong for any army to bomb schools and kill innocent children.” Is that controversial? To me it seems like a moral statement that almost everyone could agree with?

What if I write the statement as, “It is wrong for the US army to bomb schools and kill innocent children.” Still seems to me to be a fairly uncontentious moral statement that almost everyone could agree with. Surely the country the army comes from doesn’t change the moral argument?

What if I write the statement as, “It is wrong for the US army to bomb schools in Vietnam and kill innocent Vietnamese children.” Still seems to me to be a fairly uncontentious moral statement that almost everyone could agree with. The country the children come from doesn’t change the moral argument. Patriotism could influence people’s responses to the statement but the moral argument remains the same.

However, if I write the statement as, “It is wrong for the Israeli army to bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children”, many would apparantly claim that I am now guilty of anti-Semitism. (1)

Just for balance by the way as far as I am concerned the statement, “It is wrong for Palestinian para-militaries to bomb schools in Israel and kill innocent Jewish children”, also carries equal moral force and is in fact implicit in the other statements.

There is no difference in the moral weight of these three sentences:

  • “It is wrong for any army to bomb schools and kill innocent children.”
  • “It is wrong for the Israeli army to bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children.
  • “It is wrong for Palestinian para-militaries to bomb schools in Israel and kill innocent Jewish children.”

If the first sentence is morally correct, so are the other two.

So how can it be that just because I criticise the Israeli army for killing  Palestinian children (which is an historical fact) suddenly I am not defending innocent children I am attacking Jews? The reason is because of “tropes”.

One of the ideas underpinning current political discourse is that racism and Antisemitism are always with us but in this liberal era open expression of these hateful ways of thinking has been made socially and legally unacceptable. Quite rightly in my view. Thus, the argument goes, the racists and anti-Semites have gone ‘underground’ and are using a type of code, the “tropes” we are talking about, to express their evil views.

According to this argument an anti-Semite can no longer characterise Jewish people as being miserly, as for example Shakespeare and Charles Dickens once did, because the social and legal consequences of openly expressing racist views these days can, quite rightly in my view, be catastrophic. So instead, the argument continues, the modern anti-Semite might characterise ‘Jews’ as all working in accountancy, banking and the financial sector – the hidden implication being that this demonstrates their miserly and acquisitive natures, which is of course an age-old antisemitic accusation.

And of course this does happen. Racists and anti-Semites DO on occasion attempt to camouflage their views in this way. Thus for some people fighting racism and antisemitism,  ANY critical reference to a Jewish person working in accountancy, banking and the financial sector becomes a signal that the comment, while it may be not antisemitic in and of itself, it does nonetheless demonstrate an anti-Semitic motivation. Thus any and all references to  ‘Jews’ working in accountancy, banking and the financial sector”, become designated as being anti-Semitic ‘tropes’.

One of the numerous problems of viewing political discourse through this lens is that if the people you are discoursing with are unaware of the code, i.e. unaware of the meaning you read into the  “trope”, they can say things perfectly innocently that you take to be motivated by conscious racism and anti-Semitism.

So if I say “It is wrong for the Israeli army to bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children”, you could take this statement not as an expression of a concern for innocent children but as a coded way of expressing  a hatred of Jews.

This mechanism applies to almost all contemporary political discourse. The Brexit debate was dominated by both sides constantly ‘decoding’ the “tropes” of the other and in the process demonising everything everybody else said.

I voted Remain but am very, very critical of the EU. Any expression of my euro-scepticism was taken by some of my Facebook acquaintances and even some real-world friends as an indication that instead of a socialist internationalist I am in fact an ignorant racist, Brexiteer. I had said nothing racist and indeed am not ignorant of the issues but my euro-scepticism was decoded as a ‘sign’ of my malign motives and foul ideas, This arose not from what I actually said but from people ‘decoding’ what I actually said as being racist “tropes” and thereby attributing racist motives to me.

A more personal example; I don’t much like the plays of William Shakespeare. In my view this isn’t, or shouldn’t be a contentious statement. If I say “I don’t like the plays of Harold Pinter”, so what? We might talk about why I don’t but it doesn’t matter. BUT if I say, as I just have that, “I don’t much like the plays of William Shakespeare”, suddenly I seem to have said something else. Indeed, I  have been physically attacked and had my nose broken by a ‘civilised’ Shakespeare lover for saying this. It seems that some people are taking the statement “I don’t much like the plays of William Shakespeare” as a ‘trope’ and what they hear me  say is that I don’t like culture, I don’t like theatre, I don’t like education, I don’t like everything that is civilised, decent and true. But I didn’t say that and I’m not saying that. I’m just saying I don’t like the plays of one particular English playwright… which should not be a controversial thing to say.

Similarly if I say “It is wrong for the Israeli army to bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children”, that is what I am saying, and it is ALL I am saying.

Are the people calling me an anti-Semite claiming the opposite of what I am saying? Are they claiming that, “It is good that the Israeli army bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children.” I mean really? Is that what they are really saying? No of course not. In private they would acknowledge that all armies should as a matter of course try to avoid killing innocents and that one revengeful wrong does not make a right.

The problem here is that the use of “tropes” in any discourse requires us to ‘interpret’ the things people say and to attribute hidden motive. This is fraught with danger as it is almost impossible for most of us to honestly assess our own motives let alone someone else’s. And it also assumes that everyone is constantly trying to hide what they really mean. While this may be true of journalists, lawyers, professional politicians and corporate managers, it is NOT true for the rest of us, who most of the time are trying to simply say what we mean without causing offence.

And even we could accurately assess other people’s motives, we cannot judge other people by our assessment of their motives. Moral worth is defined by  actions not motive. It doesn’t matter to me what Tony Blair’s ‘motive’ was in leading the UK into the Iraq war alongside the USA. What I do know however, is what he did. And what he did was to purposefully and knowingly lie to the British public and to Parliament in order to do bring the war about and as a result the whole Middle East was destabilised and a million Iraq’s died unnecessarily. I am sure he thought he was doing the right thing in supporting the war and indeed that is even now a matter of interpretation. What he did that was so morally reprehensible was to purposefully and knowingly lie to the British public and to Parliament to get what he thought was the best outcome. He was and is entitled to his opinion about the best action to take but he is NOT entitled to lie, cheat and deceive to get his way. It is these actions that make up his moral crime, not his motive.

Racism and anti-Semitism are unfortunately very real phenomenon that can and all too often do, lead to tragedy, broken lives and even mass murder. They are a serious curse upon all of humanity. But searching them out where they are not and accusing people of them based on convoluted interpolations of what people actually in order to try to find their supposedly malign secret meanings and motivations based on ill-defined “tropes”, has seriously damaged public discourse in the Western world.


(1) I have had to think long and hard about how to write this article because simply typing the sentence, “It is wrong for the Israeli army to bomb schools in the Palestinian territories and kill innocent Palestinian children”, could lead a member of the Labour Party  to immediate suspension and ultimate expulsion from the party.

About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio http://www.agitpopradio.org.uk He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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