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4.1 Politics and Power
The first purpose of this section will provide a further description of the characteristics of political discourse. This requires a general explanation of the idea of politics itself. The intent is not to provide a complete and conclusive definition of politics as a whole, but to single out the properties and characteristics of politics that will add to an understanding of how political texts are produced within the context of political activity. More specifically, this discussion will focus on the system of politics in Canada, as it was discussed in Chapter 1.
This discussion will provide the context for the second purpose, which is an examination of the ways in which power is distributed and maintained through political discourse, in this case, through the argumentative and deliberative aspects of political debate. This will include a discussion of ideology and ‘common sense’ within the context of political discourse.
What is Politics?
Politics, according to CDA scholar Teun van Dijk, can be described using a system of hierarchical categories (“Political Discourse Analysis” 16). As a preface to this description, it is important to note that Dijk’s categorizations are simply meant to provide an insight into the relevant characteristics of politics in terms of understanding political discourse, and not as a prescriptive or singular treatment of the subject matter as a whole.
Politics itself exists as a broad societal domain, much like those of medicine, business, or education (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 16). Within the domain of politics are political systems, such as democracy, communism, or fascism, which serve to organize society in terms of the distribution of power, the style of economics, and the principles of decision making (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 16).
Political systems are informed by values and ideologies. Values are abstract convictions about what is important in a society, such as freedom, justice, or equality (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 16). Ideologies are informed by values, though they are harder to describe, as the meaning of ideology itself is a contested concept (Fairclough, Language and Power 35, 114). In terms of CDA, ideologies are representations of aspects of the real world that are built on systems of beliefs, values, and attitudes about the structure of society and how it should be sustained (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17; Fairclough, Language and Power 32). Political systems, in many cases, are also political ideologies. To understand democracy as an actual structure that organizes and distributes power in society requires a deeper understanding of what democracy represents ideologically, such as the belief in the value of human rights, among other things.
Political institutions organize the field of politics and determine its function; these are things like city councils, Congress, or Parliament (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17). This differs slightly from Fairclough’s use of the word ‘institution’, the meaning in this context refers to the representation of the specific situational contexts where distinct types of political practice occurs, and not the specific location itself. Political institutions consist of political organizations that structure political action, such as political parties, which are also defined by virtue of their distinct ideologies (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17).
Less structured than political organizations are political groups, consisting of political actors. Groups of political actors may define themselves ideologically, for example, as demonstrators, strikers, lobbyists, dissidents, and so on (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17). Political actors, as discussed earlier, can be all people who are engaged in politics, not just politicians who do the paid job of politics. More generally, political actors are those who participate in the political process by the act of voting (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17). Independently, political actors are influenced by their own cognition and ideologies.
Connecting each of these political structures are political relations, which concern the ways in which social relationships are enacted, and ultimately, how power is distributed and maintained (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17; Fairclough, Language and Power 13). Political relations are the interactions between the social structures, groups, and actors in the domain of politics and society as a whole, for example, how the government relates to its citizens or how political groups are positioned relative to others (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17). Using Fairclough’s terms, political relations are influenced by social orders and orders of political discourse that lead to the reproduction and occupation of political roles.
Political actions are concrete political events, carried out by political actors, and include the act of doing things like voting and passing laws (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 17). Political actions are based on the notion of political processes, which, much like social practices, represent the ‘ways of doing’ politics (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 18). Political discourse is the textual representation of political practice and interaction, through the production and interpretation of political texts, such as speeches and debates, propaganda, and advertising (Dijk, “Political Discourse Analysis” 18).
Using the preceding system of categorization as a guide, along with the general description of the organization of Canadian politics from Chapter 1, the context of the structure of the Canadian system of politics as it concerns the analysis in the next section is described in the following list:
- System: Democracy
- Institution: Parliament
- Values and Ideologies: Democracy, group and party ideologies
- Organizations: Political parties
- Political actors: Members of Parliament
- Political relations: Legislative power
- Political process: Legislation
- Political action: Political decision making, including legislating
What is Political Discourse?
The practice of ‘doing politics’, in the most general sense, involves making decisions about what to do and how to act in response to an event or a situation (Fairclough and Fairclough 58). Making decisions involves the process of deliberation, which requires a consideration of potential courses of action that ultimately results in a normative judgment about what ought to be done (Fairclough and Fairclough 119, 765). Deliberation in politics is argumentative in nature; it is a discursive process where people give and receive reasons that attempt to justify or criticize a proposal for action that will result in a decision (Fairclough and Fairclough 102). Argumentation involves practical reasoning, which is the weighing of considerations for and against a particular action as a response to a practical, or ‘real world’ problem (Fairclough and Fairclough 69, 153). Practical reasoning in politics is characterized by uncertainty, as different political actors will interpret problems in different ways based on their own goals and cognition, as well as their own ideological perspective and that of their party (Fairclough and Fairclough 117-118). Political decisions are ultimately made in a context of disagreement, uncertainty, and risk, which is what makes deliberation with others essential in arriving at a reasonable decision, even though the decision may fall short of a normative ideal (Fairclough and Fairclough 104).
What is Parliamentary Discourse?
The political discourse under examination in this chapter occurs in the institutional context of Parliament, and more situationally within the House of Commons, where decisions are made through a procedurally regulated discursive practice known as debate. Using the above definition of political discourse, a political debate can be understood as a deliberative activity involving the process of practical argumentation that is oriented to a normative goal, with the added condition that the possibilities and outcomes are constrained by the institutional context of where the debate occurs.
These constraints affect the interactions that occur within the immediate situational context of the House of Commons. The House is subject to regulations involving when and how often sittings occur, with the minimum requirement that sittings happen once every twelve months (O’Brian and Bosc). Each sitting is regulated by a daily order of business, which is a schedule of events that determines when, and for how long political activities, such as debates, will take place (O’Brian and Bosc).
Debate, as a discursive political practice, is a highly regulated activity subject to a specific set of rules, which serve as further constraints. These rules include “limitations on what may be said, when and by whom it may be said, and for how long each debater may speak” (O’Brian and Bosc). Debates can only occur when there is a motion, which is a proposal made by an MP that asks the House to do something, order something done, or express an opinion on a matter (O’Brian and Bosc). Motions adhere to a specific style of wording, which uses affirmative, and not argumentative language (O’Brian and Bosc). The debate must follow a specific sequence of steps and the decision to adopt or defeat a motion is decided by means of a vote, where the majority of votes wins (O’Brian and Bosc).
Legislating is the most significant task in the House of Commons, and the process of debating and deciding on the standardized motions required for a Bill to become a law comprises the majority of the time spent by MPs in the House (O’Brian and Bosc). Due to the multi-party nature of the House of Commons, the resolution of disagreements through the process of practical argumentation does not necessarily mean that all of the participants actually agree on what ought to be done (Fairclough and Fairclough 767). While the intent of the participants in the debate is to persuade others of their view, consensus is not necessary, only the mutual agreement that the results of the vote are binding (Fairclough and Fairclough 780). While MPs generally vote in accordance with the ideological views of their political party, this is not always a requirement; if this were the case there would be no reason for debates at all, as those in the majority would have the power to make the final decision on any motion (Fairclough and Fairclough 780).
It is important to recognize that the Canadian parliamentary system, at least in comparison to similar systems in Britain and Australia, upholds a very stringent practice of party discipline which is effectively controlled by each party’s Whip (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 1). The Whip is responsible for enforcing party discipline and ensuring attendance during Sittings, as well as other administrative and communicative tasks (O’Brian and Bosc). Party discipline means that the members of the same party vote the same way (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 1). These ‘whipped votes’ are encouraged through the use of incentives, such as Cabinet or Parliamentary Secretary appointments, or punishment, which can include everything from less desirable assignments, to restrictions on travel, and removal from appointments or the even the party itself (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 2). Though it is rare, ‘free votes’ do occasionally occur; these votes are usually concerned with questions of conscience or morality that transcend ideological party lines (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 2). Free votes are a political matter, meaning there are no specific procedures in the House to regulate them (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 2). When such a vote occurs, the free vote may be allowed by all parties, or by just one (Library of Parliament, “Party Discipline” 2).
As discussed in Chapter 1, the nature of a parliamentary democracy is one of imbalance, where one political party generally has more elected representation than the other parties. Party discipline is especially significant during periods of minority governance, where the outcome of votes can be seriously affected by the number of MPs in attendance. Though there are periods of minority governance in the Hansard corpus, the period under examination in this chapter had a majority government. Out of 308 available seats in the House, the government held 160 seats as of April 10, 2014, leaving the remaining 148 seats for the other members of the opposition parties, 99 of which were filled by the Official Opposition (Library of Parliament, “Parliaments”).
The function of parliamentary debate is also highly performative, as the proceedings of the Sittings in the House of Commons are televised, in what has been called ‘gavel-to-gavel’ coverage (Robertson 1). The recording of the proceedings is subject to guidelines, which include the use of specific camera angles and restrictions on microphone range (O’Brian and Bosc). During debate, MPs occasionally speak to the ‘folks back home’, or refer to the ‘people listening’ or ‘turning on their TV’ (Hansard Vol. 147 No. 80, 4903, 4909, 4938). This combination of TV coverage, the print and digital Hansard, the resulting media coverage, and the political memory of both the MPs and the public combine to create what Fairclough calls “intertextual context” (Language and Power 164).
Intertextual context relates to the ‘history’ of texts within a discourse, in that they have a historical relationship to the series of texts that have come before them (Fairclough, Language and Power 164). This historical relationship allows both the producers and the interpreters of the discourse to make presuppositions about content and context based on their prior knowledge of the discourse (Fairclough, Language and Power 164). But presuppositions are essentially assumptions, and in the case of the text producer, these assumptions presuppose an ideal reader or audience that may not actually exist (Fairclough, Language and Power 165). In the case of the actual interpretation of the text, presuppositions may draw on the cognition of the text consumer in a way that is accurate, or in a way that is not, which means that there is power in the ability to determine the intertextual context of a discourse ((Fairclough, Language and Power 165).
Language and Power
In this way, presuppositions can be seen to be ideological because what is assumed by a text producer may or may not be understood by the interpreter of the text, and since presuppositions refer to an implied history of the text, rather than an explicit description, they may be difficult to recognize, and if they are misleading or false, refute (Fairclough, Language and Power 165). Intertextual context in parliamentary debate is a discursive constraint; the power is in the ability of the text producers (the MPs) to manipulate the interpretation of the text (the debate) through references to the background information and cognition of the intended audience (the public and other MPs) through implicit references to experiences which the producer may want the audience to accept as historically or factually accurate (Fairclough, Language and Power 165). These presuppositions, whether sincere or manipulative, are inevitably reproduced by other MPs, the media, and the public, which can have the effect of imposing an ideological proposition into the social cognition of those without enough knowledge of the historical context of the discourse to challenge it (Fairclough, Language and Power 165).
Another ideological dimension that influences the intertextual contexts in parliamentary debates are the competing and contradictory presuppositions that may be referenced by MPs from different political parties. Party discipline ensures that MPs are consistent in the ways in which they vote on motions, and this discipline extends into the discourse in the shared construction of history within and across the parties themselves. Presuppositions allow MPs to draw on complex orders of discourse in the short amount of time they are afforded to speak to an issue in the House. In many ways, these presuppositions contribute to the adversarial nature of the ‘political theatre’ that results from the performative nature of televised debates (Harris 467). The primary role of opposition MPs is to oppose the policies and positions of the government as a whole; this is accomplished through the use of language that undermines the credibility and competence of their adversaries, the government MPs (Harris 466). The governing party can control the debate by constantly shifting the agenda in favour of discussing their own positive achievements, thereby undermining the criticism of the opposition (Harris 467). Televised debates enhance this confrontational process by allowing MPs from opposite sides of the House to be ‘seen’ as adversaries, stepping up to face each other while playing their distinct and recognizable roles (Harris 467).
Intertextual presuppositions are a multifaceted example of discursive constraints, because the struggle for power in the discourse occurs across multiple modes. Discourse constraints, in general, can be separated into three broad but overlapping categories: content, which is what can be said or done; relations, which involve social relations within discourse; and subject, which are the ‘subject positions’ people can occupy (Fairclough, Language and Power 76). These constraints affect the immediate situational context of discourse, but they also exert a broader structural influence across orders of discourse (Fairclough, Language and Power 98).
Political debates have many other content constraints. In addition to those already discussed, debates in the House must focus on one motion at a time and no other motions may be discussed until the matter has concluded in some way (O’Brian and Bosc). Relational constraints concern the relationships among the discourse participants; for example, party discipline dictates that the members of each party are in a subordinate relationship to their Whip, as well as their party’s leader (O’Brian and Bosc). Subject position refers to the roles available to the discourse participants, for example, one of the subject constraints in the House concerns the role of the Speaker, who must be elected by the Members of the House itself; other MPs cannot just step in and assume the role (O’Brian and Bosc). Content, relational, and subject position constraints overlap in terms of the imbalance of power inherent within the House itself. The government, by nature of the number of elected MPs, gets to talk more, sets more of the agenda, has a stronger influence on the outcome of votes, and retains executive powers for implementing government policies and programs (O’Brian and Bosc).The process of parliamentary debate, especially during a majority, serves to legitimize the power of the governing party through a public display of their openness to the consideration of opposing viewpoints, despite the reality that the distribution of votes will always support the ideological aims of the government.
Fairclough describes this as ‘power in discourse’, where powerful participants “control and constrain the contributions of non-powerful participants” (Language and Power 75-76). Power in discourse is the expression of power within the discourse itself, and it can be determined through an examination of the constraints faced by the discourse participants in terms of their social roles and the effect they have on relations and content.
‘Power behind discourse’ refers to orders of discourse and how they are communicated and maintained through the hidden effect of power (Fairclough, Language and Power 83). In terms of parliamentary debate, the constraints created by the power behind discourse have to do with access (Fairclough, Language and Power 89). Discourse involves the production and interpretation of texts, and in this case the text is Hansard. While Hansard is primarily associated with MPs, they are not the only political actors. Yet, as it was discussed in the previous section, only MPs may participate in the debates, which happens as a result of their access to the knowledge and beliefs, social relationships, and social roles associated with ‘doing politics’ (Fairclough, Language and Power 99).
Access to politics uncovers a number of interrelated issues in terms of the power behind discourse. In order to become an MP, a person must first be elected. In order to get elected, or to even try to get elected, that person needs to have access to the development of the skills and knowledge that underlie the social role of politician; something that requires financial resources and the support of a local riding association. This requires having early access to literacy (Fairclough, Language and Power 90), which determines access to a certain quality of childhood education, which determines access to post-secondary education, which determines access to skilled professions, which determines access to the finances and social relationships required to participate in a political election. Having access to the skills and knowledge required to fulfill the social role of politician doesn’t guarantee that one will get elected, nor does it mean that someone with less access won’t find success in politics, but access is a constraint based in power nonetheless.
The power behind this discourse is apparent in the reproduction. When a social role is consistently reproduced with little variation, the discourse associated with the representation of that role becomes prioritized to the point of seeming natural (Fairclough, Language and Power 113). In the case of becoming a politician, it seems completely natural that the role should require special skills and knowledge. This is reinforced in one way by the formality inherent to the discourse of parliamentary debate. People that lack access to the specialized training and literacy skills that are required to engage in debate may see the formality of the language as a barrier to participating. Fairclough describes this as a constraint on language form, which in turn creates an imbalance of power between those with access and those without (Fairclough, Language and Power 93). This constraint not only restricts access to the social role, but it generates an aura of awe around the role itself (Fairclough, Language and Power 114). This awe serves to further naturalize the exclusivity of the social role of politician.
Naturalization occurs when one type of discourse becomes so dominant within a domain or institution that it seems as though there couldn’t possibly exist any other alternatives (Fairclough, Language and Power 113). While the discursive practice of debate contributes to the power inherent to the social role of politician, it also exerts an influence on relational and structural imbalances. Political debates literally control the legislative power within the House of Commons, as political decisions are not made unless a motion, debate, and vote occurs. The decisions that are made affect all political actors, not just politicians. But debate is not the only way to make a decision as a group; an alternative discourse type for parliamentary democracies could involve a model of consensus-based decision making. The fact that parliamentary democracies rely exclusively on debate for decision making appears to be ‘common sense’ because the discourse type has been so naturalized within the institution that it seems like the only legitimate way to proceed.
Naturalization and common sense are grounded ideologically (Fairclough, Language and Power 113). Debate as a discourse type is valued over other types of discourse in parliaments because of the power it affords to those who control the institution, as the nature of majority decision making keeps power in the hands of the majority. Though the majority in a parliament may change as a result of elections (which in itself is an ideological issue), the dominance of the discourse type doesn’t. The result of this naturalization is that the discourse type becomes so enmeshed in the structure of the institution that its ideological character becomes hard to distinguish (Fairclough, Language and Power 113).
The influence of common sense can also affect the meaning of individual words (Fairclough, Language and Power 115). What Fairclough describes as the ‘meaning systems’ of words was introduced in the last chapter as collocation. This is the idea that individual words can “acquire implications” when they occur repeatedly with other words (Stubbs, “Words and Phrases” 7). When language users understand meaning systems implicitly, it becomes a matter of common sense that certain words will have a fixed definition when they occur with other words (Fairclough, Language and Power 115). Meaning systems are especially problematic in terms of discourse prosody, which is the idea that when a word frequently occurs in a context that is clearly positive or negative, uses of the word in other contexts may carry the same implied attitudinal meaning (Hunston, “Semantic Prosody Revisited” 250).
When meaning systems become common sense, they appear to lose their ideological character, which creates an impression that certain words and phrases can only be interpreted one way (Fairclough, Language and Power 116). This has the effect of constraining the content within the discourse because controlling the meaning of the language controls the discourse itself, especially when words with seemingly fixed definitions are used to manipulate those with less power in the interaction. When fixed definitions of words travel across discourse types, they have the power to maintain whole orders of discourse through the fixed determination of accepted knowledge and beliefs about certain topics, relationships, and social roles (Fairclough, Language and Power 99, 116).
Power is maintained through the reproduction of orders of discourse when there is little to no variation. When meaning systems, perceptions about social roles and relationships, and the structural nature of institutions become internalized in cognition, they become common sense. The more people that internalize the common sense ideas, the more they are reproduced, and the harder they are to change. This is how power is maintained through hegemony. There is no need to coerce people into giving up their power when they believe that imbalance in society is just common sense.
The next section will describe the method of conducting CDA by examining a specific selection of discourse from Hansard. The CDA will integrate the results of the text analysis in Chapter 3, the discussion on privacy from Chapter 2, as well as many of the topics discussed in this section. The method of CDA, as it was described earlier, involves three interrelated areas of analysis: text, interpretation, and context. The text analysis conducted in the last chapter identified specific trends from Hansard that were deemed worthy of examination, some of which will be further explored by the CDA. Chapter 2 introduced the concept of privacy and the legislation and jurisprudence of privacy in Canada, which will serve to focus the analysis. This section contained elements of the interactional and contextual analysis, describing the immediate interactional context of the House of Commons in which the discourse appears, as well as the broader orders of discourse that House draws upon. The first two stages of the CDA will be interwoven in the next section, the results of which will be discussed as the third stage of analysis in the concluding section of this chapter.
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