Relations with Iran depend on understanding politeness, ARU conference hears
The ongoing diplomatic and political stand-off between Iran and the UK/US axis is an illustration of what can happen when impoliteness is normalised, the audience heard at the recent (Im)Politeness conference at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).
The international conference also considered the 2016 Trump-Clinton election and the origins of rudeness in UK political discourse.
Samaye Akbari, whose talk at the event was titled ‘Impoliteness in Iranian televised debates’, is one of many students and academics whose studies have led her to Europe. Currently a PhD researcher studying the political context of political discourse at Bayreuth University, she was living in Iran at the start of her interest in cultural impoliteness.
“I was living in Tehran at the time of the 2009 election and was following the election on TV,” she said during a conference break, “but at the end I couldn’t decide which one was telling the truth, so I didn’t vote for either of them.”
She subsequently left Iran because she “found the universities abroad more qualified than the Iranian ones”.
“It wasn’t easy,” she adds. “I was looking at American universities but they are really expensive, they’re also expensive in Australia. Then I found out that at German universities you don’t pay tuition fees. Here there is a history of freedom of speech and science, where you can carry out any research in any area without being censored. I was looking for a place to flourish.”
The template for political discussion on TV in Iran was set in 2009, and continued in the 2013 and 2017.
In 2009 two presidential candidates, the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and main challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, were faced with mounting poverty - one in five Iranians live below the poverty line - and international isolation. Ahmadinejad’s main base was the poorer classes, with Mousavi appealing to the middle classes (Mousavi continues to run Iran’s Green Party but has been under house arrest since 2011).
The key factor in Iranian public life, says Samaye, is ‘aberu’, which translates roughly as honour, but it’s not just individual honour, it relates to families or even tribal loyalties. So for instance, if there is a thief in a family, that whole family is shunned.
“To win the election, candidates make an effort to destroy their opponent's aberu severely by attaching them, their parties and their family members to the source of crimes and corruptions,” notes Samaye. “Most of the presidential debates’ time is allocated for staining one’s aberu rather than discussing future goals, activities, and policies.”
The stakes in this personalised and confrontational style of debate are high.
“When someone’s aberu is gone it’s really a disaster,” says Samaye. “Ahmadinejad specifically formulates questions and then immediately responds to them himself, so the questions are not framed for the interlocutor to reply to them. He is not interested in his interlocutor’s responses at all but he initially intends to aggravate aberu damage to his opponent and then to be able to publicly criticise, accuse or humiliate his opponent. Ahmadinejad regularly utilises disclaimers, another impoliteness strategy, when he states: ‘I don't like to say BUT…'
“It is an impolite behaviour when he says that he does not like to talk about something but he immediately accuses, criticises, humiliates or underestimates his opponent, the opponent's party or the opponent's significant others. These strategies, deployed by Ahmadinejad, are extended to the later presidential debates in the years 2013 and 2017.”
The end result, of course - in Iran as in the West - is that the people continue to suffer. The UK has experienced a decade of austerity, while in Iran they’ve had sanctions - starting in 1995 and expanded in 2006 and in 2019 - which have accelerated inflation and eroded wages.
“Those who are really suffering from these sanctions and their catastrophic consequences are the Iranian people,” says Samaye. “To my book, both governments are impolite when they are ignoring peoples’ rights and just worsen the situation and life for the community. They are impolite when they are too power-hungry to see the people suffering, mainly from hunger since people cannot afford everyday items.”
“The traditional boundaries between politicians and people have collapsed, paving the way for a more polarised and aggressive use of language, both online and in the real world,” said conference organiser Dr Vahid Parvaresh, senior lecturer in linguistics at ARU.
“A recent case in point would be Donald Trump’s aggressive tweets about British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, in which he called him a ‘wacky Ambassador’ and a ‘very stupid guy’. This isn’t the language traditionally used by world leaders and its effect is that it slowly begins to normalise this kind of impoliteness.”