The Pitfalls of Populism

There’s a very odd debate going on in the UK at the moment, between two words that no-one uses in everyday talk, but have polarised the country. The words are “shirker” and “striver”. Ask yourself if you have ever used either of these in ordinary conversation. It’s unlikely. How then, can these phrases encapsulate a hugely significant argument about social security, work, effort and reward?

The truth is that these words originate in a tabloid hinterland where people still call chocolates “chocs” and attractive women are “lovelies”. They are loaded terms precisely because they have no common application. If you hear the word “striver”, you don’t think of strivers you know, or the last person you called a striver. You accept the simple, comic-book definition because you don’t have any other associations with the word.

In that sense, they are very useful words if you are looking to simplify an incredibly complicated debate. Who wouldn’t support a striver ahead of a shirker? The problem for those who adopt this technique is when the words are applied in a context the reader relates to. Is your lovely neighbour who lost their job after an accident a shirker? And is the rich man down the road who does something in finance, has left his wife and family and dates a string of younger women, a striver? In the real world, things are complicated. Everyone probably strives on occasion and shirks at times. Life is nuanced in a way that this debate can’t begin to capture.

There’s a useful lesson for writers here. Tabloid phrases can be very helpful in creating a clear, straightforward, almost cartoonish image in reader’s minds. When you want to explain something simple, use simple language. This comes with a warning though –  if you try to break down complex issues, particularly highly emotional ones, into over-simplistic catchphrases, you will start to look cheap as soon as your readers dip beneath the headline.

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