Some months back I reported that my linguistic friends and I planned to read and discuss The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis by Meriel Bloor and Tom Bloor.
Since then, we have been working our way steadily and enjoyably through the chapters. Unexpectedly, we found that the book forced us to make explicit our own basic beliefs and, therefore, to confront them. It was great fun challenging our friends’ beliefs but quite surprising and uncomfortable to face up to our own. As we are in our sixties, seventies and eighties respectively, we have got out of the habit of questioning our assumptions. Particularly on ethnicity and consumerism, we found that our underlying attitudes were very different from one another’s and this led to some hard-hitting arguments.
Last week we had a fascinating discussion arising from the last chapter – Discourse and the Law. We had all had the privilege of hearing Malcolm Coulthard’s inaugural lecture on Forensic Linguistics, though on different occasions, and in this chapter the Bloors draw on the ground-breaking work of Malcolm and his team at Aston University. A whole new industry of Forensic Linguistics has been established, as plaintiffs, defendants and the police call on linguists to give expert evidence attesting the truth or falsehood of both oral and written submissions. Perhaps the most famous case in which the testimony of linguistic experts was crucial was that of Derek Bentley, who was posthumously cleared of his conviction for murder.
In their book the Bloors focus on the difficulty of actually achieving equality before the law, since the disparities in the power, wealth and cultural conformity of the litigants create huge inequalities. These are so much part of our way of life that we think of them as natural rather than socially constructed. The Bloors demonstrate the obstacles that tenants, children and women victims encounter in seeking justice, thus showing how difficult it is to make a reality of equality before the law. Most disturbingly, they describe how not only language but also cultural assumptions can lead to miscarriages of justice. They instance cases of Australian aborigines giving evidence in court, which are fraught with cultural incomprehension. For example, it is disrespectful in aboriginal culture to look one’s interlocutors in the eye, whereas in the dominant culture it is a mark of shiftiness.
We have found this chapter so interesting that we are following it up in our next book:
Introduction to Forensic Linguistics by Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson