The shibboleth trend in modern politics

Some call it the “culture war”. Others refer to identity politics. But the language we use and even, in a specific instance, the clothes we wear, identify which “tribe” people belong to. Use the wrong term and you risk being drummed out of the tribe or condemned for being in the wrong group.

It all brings to mind the story in Judges, chapter 12 where the people of Gilead used the word “shibboleth” to identify their enemies, who could not pronounce it. The word survives into modern usage to refer to a custom or tradition that distinguishes a group of people, but with the kicker that such a custom may be outmoded or nonsensical.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the and rapassages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

We can see something similar in the terms people use to describe ethnic groups, in issues like inheritance taxes (aka death taxes) or Brexit. On many occasions, the different use of language reflects an attempt to frame the debate in terms favourable to one side or the other — hence abortion is divided into pro-choice (emphasising the right of the woman) and pro-life (emphasising the right of the foetus) movements. Which term you use defines which side of the debate you are on.

The term “political correctness” is often used for this debate, although the phrase itself is loaded, implying that those who use a different terminology are a beleaguered minority when that is clearly not the case. Take for example the use of gender-neutral pronouns like zie or xe, which Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor, has campaigned against. The vast majority of people would not recognise those terms and thus do not use them. Mr Peterson claimed he might be prosecuted under human rights law if he refused to use such terms. But that hasn’t happened. And the alternative way of looking at the issue is that Mr Peterson refuses to address transgender people with such terms, even when they ask him to which, at a minimum, is impolite.

If you view Mr Peterson as a fearless candidate for free speech, I can probably guess where you stand on a number of other issues, such as climate change, Brexit or the Black Lives Matter movement. By the same token, I can guess where you stand on the other issues if you regard him as a transphobe (a term that is used by only one side of the debate).

These tribal allegiances have a rough philosophical underpinning. People who dislike government intervention see methods of tackling climate change as an assault on freedom (to drive cars, use coal etc) and dislike the idea of government support for disadvantaged groups, or indeed proclamations over the “correct” way of addressing people. They support Brexit because they view the EU as an overmighty bureaucratic superstate. People on the other side of the debate tend to have a more internationalist view and a sense that society needs to tackle the unjust treatment of minority groups.

Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was, in its own way, a neat summary of this debate. It suggested that America needed to return to the past, but which past did it refer to? The 1950s are sometimes portrayed as an era of tranquil prosperity but they were also marked by racial segregation and the denial of African-Americans’ right to vote. Other groups like women and gays have also gained rights in the last 50 years that they do not wish to see taken away. America was not that great for them in earlier eras.

Many people feel caught in the middle of all this. They do not wish to cause offence but worry that they will be caught out by changes in terminology. For example, the term “coloured people” is now deemed to be offensive but “people of colour” is not (although not everyone applauds its use). Benedict Cumberbatch was caught out by this a few years ago. Older people, in particular, may have grown up using one term and fail to notice it has changed (indeed the NAACP, a civil rights group, still uses it).

But it is important not to overstate the problem. Mr Cumberbatch apologised and moved on; his career is still flourishing. If the left can be accused of hyperventilating on some issues, so can the right. Every year, there is a panic at the idea of “cancelling Christmas”; Donald Trump even claimed that people stopped saying “Merry Christmas” until he put things right. Again, it is simple courtesy to consider the possibility that people of other religions don’t celebrate Christmas and address them accordingly.

Whatever your views on these issues, it is clear that they have increasingly defined political divides, even more so than the economic issues of tax rates and social spending that used to dominate. (The British Conservatives, like America’s Republicans, have increasingly targeted the working class vote. Donald Trump, a wealthy property developer, and Boris Johnson, an old Etonian newspaper columnist, claim to be more on the side of “the people” that left-wing politicians who favour, say, a higher minimum wage or enhanced workers’ rights.)

No sooner had the pandemic emerged than it slotted neatly into this partisan debate, particularly in America. Fighting the disease requires greater government intervention and so one tribe opposes it. This even extends to mask-wearing; Democrats are more likely to wear a mask than Republicans.

Of course, it is reasonable to debate whether governments have tackled the virus successfully. Have lockdown measures caused too much economic damage, particularly for workers who have lost their jobs, when the most severe effects of the disease are focused on the elderly? But ideological consistency is not always applied. In Britain, those in the anti-lockdown camp tend to be Brexiteers. On the first issue, they complain about the impact on businesses; on the second issue, they seem remarkably nonchalant.

Modern political marketing has created the short slogans that define these debates, from “taking back control” through “stop the steal” to “the many, not the few”. When they are overused they become shibboleths - merely parroted slogans that lose their real meaning. They demonstrate that it is not just that people no longer agree on the same facts, they do not agree on the same language.

Can a nation survive such a stark divide? Polls suggest that many Republicans do not accept that Joe Biden won the US election legitimately. On Friday, the Supreme Court rejected an attempt by Texas to overturn the votes of millions of people in four states that backed Biden. In response, the chairman of the Texas Republicans suggested that “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.” Anyone who has studied US history may recall that something similar was said about Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election victory. When the new Gilead fights the new Ephraim, perhaps the shibboleth test will revolve around the question “who is the legitimate President?” Let us hope not.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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