The semiotics of the political spectrum

21 May 2012 | By Michael
The semiotics of the political spectrum

In the west it is pervasive to think of political parties as sitting somewhere on a left-to-right spectrum. From a purely branding point of view, which end is the easier sell?

Some would argue that there is an inbuilt bias in the media towards the right because of the enormous influence of big business and the need for major media organisations like newspapers to thrive in what is of course a capitalist system. Others feel that politically correct, bleeding-heart lefties control the media conversation.

Yet most observers would tend to assume that purely in terms of ideas, left and right have an equal shot at winning the argument (if not power). This premise ignores a simple fact pervading all political discourse in the west: the left is at a symbolic disadvantage because of the whole meaning of the word ‘left’.

‘Left’ has all sorts of unfortunate connotations. The word ‘sinister’ derives from the Latin for ‘left side’ and came to English via ‘sinistre’, the old French word for left which also meant ‘contrary’ and ‘unfavourable’. In English we describe someone as gauche – modern French for left – if they are awkward or lacking social grace.

Only a generation ago it was commonplace for schoolteachers to stop naturally left-handed kids writing with their ‘wrong’ hand. The fact that only around 10% of the world’s population is left-handed itself makes leftness a minority phenomenon in most people’s mind, and we are all well aware of how minorities of various stripes have faced fear, prejudice and even persecution throughout history.

Then there are the everyday meanings of left. Left means ‘remnants’ (‘what’s left’) and ‘abandoned’ (‘they left’). It is defined by the principle of negation: there was something significant here, now it is gone.

The word ‘right’ is a very different kettle of fish. It means ‘correct’; it opposes ‘wrong’. It is used to describe a universal principle of human dignity and decency – ‘rights’ or ‘human rights’. To gain the right to do something means to gain the power, the entitlement to do it. All in all, right is a word of immense positivity, potency and desirability.

Imagine if a new political spectrum were dreamed up with a vertical not horizontal basis. At one end is ‘high’ or ‘up’, at the other ‘low’ or ‘down’. You have a choice to align your party with one end or the other to maximise the positive associations. Which would you choose? The answer is obvious. Yet this is the semiotic problem the left has faced, albeit in a subtler form, for generations.

The fact that in the English speaking world the right has won a clear majority of elections in the last hundred years or so may be largely due to top-down media bias, Capitalist hegemony, or even because the ideas are just better. But political thinkers and planners on the left may need to introduce an entirely different basis for visualising where communists, socialists, liberals, progressives and greens sit in the conceptual universe if there is to ever be an equal playing field on the level of symbolism.

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