VeShancey, Zach — Appropriations of Power and Discourse in Western Society

VeShancey, Zach.  “Appropriations of Power and Discourse in Western Society”

Broadly speaking, my goal in writing this paper was to establish concrete relationships between unequal appropriations of power and unequal appropriations of language and discourse in Western society. Language is, after all, the social phenomenon which connects us with each other and with various social constructs, such as schools, power systems, industry, and so on. It is also the mechanism by which we come to know ourselves, understand our world, and express consciousness and internal processes of thought. Through the course of Western industrial history, various dialects have come to reflect the socioeconomic statuses of the communities in which they are spoken. In the words of Norman Fairclough, “The establishment of the dominance of Standard English and the subordination of other social dialects [in Britain] was part and parcel of the establishment of the dominance of the capitalist class and the subordination of the working class.”[i] These varying dialects, along with the appropriations of prestige that come with them, help form and fortify the political and social lines along which society differentiates.

In the establishment of these lines there exists a conflict between two realities. Economically, the standardization of language is necessary for maximum communicative and productive efficiency – I’ve heard it to be that among the Virginia Tech faculty, the department with the highest number of “grammar Nazis” is located in Pamplin; practically, the notion of total standardization of a language or dialect is unreasonable – as is the notion of universal affluence in a free-market society. Thus, the institution that serves as the funnel through which the masses trudge toward the workforce – the educational system – must necessarily differentiate according to some standard. Ostensibly, that standard is meritocratic. A student enters school and graduates (or doesn’t) with a GPA and a future reflective of the effort they chose to apply. This is of course a fantasy. A high school graduate from an upper-class background is 30 percent more likely to attend college than a student from a lower-class background.[ii] Thus, it seems that the system differentiates along different lines. These lines differentiate, among other things, differentiate between variations in lexical and linguistic proficiency and reflect, in the words of Fairclough, “the existing social division of labor and the existing system of class relations”.[iii]

To demonstrate this phenomenon, I point to the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), a test that has become concomitant with the college application process in America and whose two linguistic-oriented portions – Critical Reading and Writing – essentially assess, respectively, the size of a student’s lexicon and their ability to comprehend prose and articles, and the eloquence with which they can express knowledge and consciousness. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, White students perform significantly higher – 31 points – than the countrywide average on both the Critical Reading and Writing portions of the SAT. Black students, on the other hand, score 70 points lower than the average on the same portions. Aside from Asian/Pacific Islander, every other non-White demographic scored significantly lower than average.[iv] A similar trend exists between groups of varying income: according to statistics from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, on average, students in every income bracket scored higher than students in respective lower brackets on every section.[v] Students in the highest income bracket ($200,000+) scored on average over 130 points higher on the Critical Reading and Writing sections than students in the lowest income bracket ($0-20,000). These statistics are unsurprising: it makes sense that a student from a family of the business class is more likely to be proficient with the language and dialect of that echelon than a student born of poverty. These facts are distressing, and reflect an obvious truth of the current system of American class relations: rich people speak differently than poor people. But what is suspicious and troubling about this disparity in linguistic proficiency is the implication it has on the various classes’ relative abilities to understand and interpret the world around them, to express their consciousness, and to participate in the decision-making forums of society in ways that help to influence and improve the conditions in which they live.

The ramifications for illiterate and dialectically marginalized groups extend beyond being excluded from forums of social influence. Immediately and materially, illiteracy is a prison sentence. According to a study by the One World Literacy Foundation, two out of every three students who cannot read above a fourth grade level will end up in jail or on welfare. Indeed, 70% of American inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level.[vi] These studies range from comprehension of basic prose and non-fiction to the subject’s ability to fill out basic information, like on business forms or job applications. Similarly, communities that are illiterate overwhelmingly constitute the poorest sectors of society. According to a similar study conducted by the American Council on Education, “70% of Americans who receive food stamps perform at the lowest 2 levels of literacy, and 90% of high school dropouts are on welfare”.[vii] These statistics are upsetting, but predictable. What is more upsetting, though, is the concerted effort among those in power – the business class – to limit (and often reduce) welfare and social benefits for those who are failed by the educational system – a system which is broadly influenced by those same people and which bears the primary responsibility of providing students with basic skills, like literacy. The majority of the people who depend on welfare would almost certainly struggle to read (let alone comprehend) the content of the legislation that directs it. This is, as I see it, analogous to cheating a blind man in a game of cards. That the blind man – poor, illiterate, and disenfranchised communities, in this case – is systematically ignored, marginalized and underserved by the current system is regrettably predictable. Another phenomenon exists, however, which serves to explain the strength of Western power relations. It is, as articulated by J. Elspeth Stuckey, “…the willingness, if not the felt need, of disenfranchised citizens to rationalize their inequality”.[viii] Such has been the success of the ruling class in what is commonly referred to as the “manufacture of consent”. In the first world, where the coercion of the masses by means of physical manipulation is not an option, power must be derived from somewhere: in our case, it is the manipulation of ideology by means of language.

It is useful now to analyze the relationship between language and the development of ideology and consciousness, and how it pertains to an individual’s ability to understand and influence the world around them. Noam Chomsky, in a speech given at Loyola University in 1970, had this to say of the nature of language and consciousness:

To the Cartesians, it is obvious by introspection that each man possesses a mind, a substance whose essence is thought; his creative use of language reflects this freedom of thought and conception…Language, in its essential properties and the manner of its use, provides the basic criterion for determining that another organism is a being with a human mind and the human capacity for free thought and self-expression, and with the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority.[ix]

By this framework we can better appreciate and understand the implications of linguistic proficiency on the extent to which individuals are free to pursue conditions that maximize their welfare. If a person’s use of language is indeed a reflection of “freedom of thought and conception”, then restrictions on access to various mechanisms, like vocabulary or grammatical proficiency, are also restrictions on their ability to identify with and express their internal processes of thought. If, for example, a person is unfamiliar with a word like “subjugated”, they cannot readily articulate that they feel they are being subjugated. They could assert that their circumstances are “unfair”, but this comes without the implication that someone above them is causing the unfairness. This also implies a restriction of their ability to participate in forums of society in which they are able to engage in communication and negotiation regarding their circumstances. With this understanding of the relationship between language and consciousness, we may better understand the correlation between social groupings with varying dialects and linguistic tendencies and the distributions of power between them.

The manipulation and control of ideology is another phenomenon that has, necessarily, developed tacitly and surreptitiously, and has been made possible largely by the narratives of Western media outlets. It is not limited to mainstream organizations such as CNN or Fox; most outlets, from multinationals to municipal newspapers, are culpable. Media outlets are the primary scenes of social discourse, and it is a concerning thought that the percent of the population it gives a voice to is almost zero; the balance of representation between social groups – rich and poor, blue- and white-collar representatives – is similarly skewed. The nature of class relations in the media is well articulated by Norman Fairclough:

Government ministers figure far more than unemployed people, and industrial managers or trade union officials figure far more than shopfloor workers. While the unequal influence of social groupings may be relatively clear in terms of who gets to be interviewed, for example, it is less clear but nevertheless highly significant in terms of whose perspective is adopted in reports. If, for instance, industrial disputes are systematically referred to as trouble or disruption, that is systematically building the employer’s perspective into industrial news coverage.[x]

This attitude, albeit more blatantly deliberate among perceptibly partisan news outlet, is evident regardless of the topic being covered, be it police shootings or union strikes. Even the use of terms such as “rioting” and “looting” is an immediate and implicit implication of those committing the acts. These acts, as well as unionized efforts in industrial disputes as mentioned by Fairclough, are portrayed as “disruptive” because they disrupt the narrative of those who own and work for the media – and thus the narrative of the status quo. Because the direction of media discourse is one-way (the audience is generally unable to participate), outlets must create the feeling that their viewers are with them in their established community, members of the same echelon of the social hierarchy. It is through the use of language and ideology that this is accomplished. These communities are generally defined by common citizenship and range in scale from school to city to nation, with patriotism and nationalistic devotion being generally emphasized. The importance of this deception to those in positions of power is perfectly evident in the nature and format of “news” programs, which, generally, rely on sensationalism and vivacity to retain viewers and deter them from the pursuit of alternative sources of information. Chomsky explains the necessity of control over the use of language and distribution of information by the elite in an article titled Force and Opinion, in which he states:

Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states. The logic is straightforward: a despotic state can control its domestic enemies by force, but as the state loses this weapon, other devices are required to prevent the ignorant masses from interfering with public affairs, which are none of their business […] the public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products.[xi]

It is through the control and use of language that power holders are capable of perpetuating a system that simultaneously marginalizes huge sects of the population and manages to fool them into “rationalizing their own inequality”. The relationship between the media and the marginalized is entirely one-sided and, in its portrayal of social tensions and antagonisms, serves to instill a feeling of isolation and discord among those who would benefit most from solidarity – in this case, those incapable of participating in media discourse and those power forums limited to the politically literate and culturally affluent.

An interesting way of viewing the relationship between language and class antagonisms is proposed by Fairclough. He suggests three mechanisms by which the appropriation of power and discourse may be understood. The first mechanism supposes a state in which discourse types are, “…universally followed and necessarily accepted because no alternative seems conceivable…” The second Fairclough terms “inculcation”, which he defines as discoursal coordination by means of exercising power, which is, in Western society, largely tacit and hidden. The third he characterizes as appropriations of discourse which are arrived at diplomatically through “communication”.[xii] This concerns productive and diplomatic discourse among those who are similarly literate in a particular field. Inculcation, he explains, can be understood as an effort to create a system in which the first mechanism – a system of seemingly unalterable appropriations of discourse and power – exists under conditions in which “class domination and division” endure. In other words, he explains, “…inculcation is the mechanism of power-holders who wish to preserve their power, while communication is the mechanism of emancipation and the struggle against domination.” Given this framework, antagonisms between groups with unequal appropriations of discourse – i.e. shopfloor workers and industrial executives – can be understood in the context of the motivations of the respective groups. Indeed, in a non-military state, “communication” is the penultimate option among the disenfranchised in the struggle for justice, before violence. A society in which productive communication is made impossible will inevitably lead to social unrest among those whose voices are ignored. Those in power are apt to respond in one of two ways: they may acknowledge the voices of the disenfranchised and work to establish a system in which they are better able to participate, or they may bolster and fortify their means of suppressing them. The $4.2 billion in surplus American military equipment transferred to local police departments since 1997 may indicate which direction our power holders are tending towards.[xiii] The struggle between these groups is well articulated by J. Elspeth Stuckey, who notes that, “…in American society the struggle is between those who can read and write and those who cannot or have no opportunity to, and the struggle is over who is entitled to negotiate. It is perfectly evident which minds do not possess that right.”[xiv] Her example is, I believe, microcosmic of a broader struggle between those who have benefitted from American appropriations of discourse and those who have been marginalized by them – the latter is not limited merely to those who cannot read or write, though they generally belong to the community of the disenfranchised. Nonetheless, her characterization of the struggle itself is accurate: the right to negotiate (or “communicate”) for more equal distributions of power presupposes negotiation itself. Included in that demographic that is denied the right to negotiation are illiterates, but also union workers who are overpowered by the influence of large organizations, children who will fail to obtain above a fourth grade reading level, and the segment of the population that is politically and economically illiterate and unable to understand, let alone participate in, those processes which directly affect their lives.

The rampant inequality we see in contemporary Western society has developed tacitly, and is the result of two hundred years of industrial development and class relations; with the development of the dominant class has come the development of a dominant dialect. Those in power have a vested interest in maintaining and fortifying the exclusivity of their echelon: the fewer people they have joining their ranks, the fewer people with whom they will be forced to share their wealth. In the age of technology and global media, the manufacturing of consent is the goal, and language is the means. It is through the use of language and the manipulation of ideology that the social symptom of linguistic inequality is perpetuated, which is frustrating. But cracks are forming. They are small, but I believe literacy – both linguistic and political – and equal appropriations of linguistic proficiency serve as the chisels with which they will be spread. At the heart of these cracks are countless cases of antagonistic and contradictory goals pursued by the ruling classes: we must be smart enough to help produce but not so smart as to question whether we’re worth something more; literate enough to participate in the economic system but not economically or politically literate, lest we truly understand the nature of the world around us. These conflicts are fragile, and depend upon the ownership of the English language and the appropriations of knowledge and power that come with it. In the wake of recent events in Ferguson and the likelihood of future instances of social unrest, it serves us well to remember the words of Martin Luther King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Though the matter of appropriations of power is hugely nuanced and difficult to associate with any single phenomenon, I hope this paper and its analysis of appropriations of discourse has provided some sort of useful framework with which to approach the issue of unequal distributions of power, wealth and influence in society.

Sources Cited

[i] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 57. Print.

[ii] National Center for Education Statistics, 2012 Digest of Educational Statistics

[iii] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 64. Print.

[iv] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015),Chapter 2.

[v] “2014 SAT Score Trend Remains Flat; Test-Fixated School Policies Have Not Improved College Readiness.” The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <>.

[vi] One World Literacy Foundation.. “Illiteracy Statistics.” One World Literacy. Accessed April 16, 2014. .

[vii] American Council on Education. “Literacy Facts > Literacy in America.” Gaston Literacy Council, Inc. Accessed April 16, 2014.

[viii] Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1991. Print.

[ix] Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove. “Language and Freedom.” The Essential Chomsky. New York: New, 2008. 80. Print.

[x] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 50. Print.

[xi] “Force and Opinion, by Noam Chomsky.” Force and Opinion, by Noam Chomsky. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

[xii] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 75. Print.

[xiii] “AP IMPACT: Little Restraint In Military Giveaways.” NPR. NPR. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <>.

[xiv] Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1991. Print.



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