O, Ingratitude, Where Is Thy Sting?

‘Opposition ingrates’ is a phrase I’ve seen floating around recently on social media. I found it fascinating, because while clearly meant as a stinging epithet within the very current context of GE2015, I found myself thinking: Couldn’t they have thought of something less anachronistic than ‘ingrate’?

As I understand it, the logic behind ‘opposition ingrate’ is that for a right-thinking Singaporean, your vote is owed to the political leaders that built a successful Singapore.1 This is not at all a difficult position to decipher, but I think it is a position worth examining in terms of the discourses and ideologies it implicates.

To return to the moment I first registered the term, to my ear, the use of ‘ingrate’ as a political epithet seemed out of sync with what I thought was the mainstream attitude towards politics and society. Wherefore gratefulness, in a meritocratic society where no-one is owed a living? Likewise, a persistent message of elections rhetoric is that you, the voter, have not been as well served as you have the right to expect, and the relationship between the state and you is that of service-provider and client, with the elections candidates being competing contractors.

In neither of the above schemas does gratefulness seem like the most relevant candidate for a social or moral value. It was in this sense that I saw what I called ‘mainstream attitudes’ being at odds with the notion implicit in ‘ingrate’, that it is your obligation to render your political support to the benevolent authority that maintains the social order.

This notion of a social order maintained by authority itself was something I would’ve thought was outmoded, or at least at a greater degree of remove from a current and popular political event. I’ve tended to encounter the idea in more hermetic contexts, e.g. in discussions about the history of political thought. In contrast, I saw current political news and its attendant media commentary (including satirical commentary) as tending to either start off from a different presumption about its audience’s political and social consciousness2, or identify anti-authoritarian/anti-establishment views with the popular consciousness. Basically, the idea of a social order wherein gratefulness to authority had significant moral weight seemed quaintly traditional, in a vaguely retrograde way.

Against this context, the question of whom exactly the people who use the epithet ‘opposition ingrate’ saw as their audience, was something of a puzzle. It would work, somewhat, as a message of solidarity, among some imagined majority of traditional, conservative folk with old-fashioned values; however, the audience against whom the force of the epithet is directed is, presumably, exactly the kind of anti-establishment advocate for whom ‘ingrate’ could hardly be expected to make sense as a moral criticism.

I wish I could call the situation I’ve described a novel one, but really it seems more and more like the template for political disagreement nowadays: call it the culture wars model, if you will. I might have called it ideological disagreement, but that would suggest more self-consciousness than appears to be in evidence, and I think the essential feature of this situation is the preclusion of the possibility of coming to terms.


The title of this post was also informed by my other, more superficial investigation of the instinct I had about the word ‘ingrate’ being somewhat anachronistic.

I went with Google Ngrams first, and we see clearly that you’re much more likely to be called ‘ungrateful’ (and even ‘faithless’) more than ‘ingrate’. ‘Ingrate’ is about as commonly used in the English corpus as the term ‘carpetbagger‘ (an epithet with a rather culturally specific context that, when used in a general sense, means ‘any opportunistic or exploitive outsider’, and when used in a current political context, might be fairly applied to a certain Son of Punggol).


Next I went on BYU’s GloWbE corpus.


Nigeria registered an unusually high rate of the token, and though there were a few repeat instances, it appears that ‘ingrate’ has found a place in the idiom of Nigerian film dialogue (choice example: ‘As for Awolowo, he is an INGRATE & a BETRAYER!’). There appear to be several examples from real-world political commentary as well (specifically, politicians’ comments on each other).

In Pakistan, the examples were almost exclusively from religious texts (‘Verily! Man is an ingrate […]’). This is a fairly common use-context for other countries as well.

The other fairly common use-context is football, which is where this gem of a user comment on an article about a returning sports star:

‘you are ingrate. Show appreciation small to nation builders for their contributions. You are a reicarnate of somebody in the biblical times who would shout crucify him, crucify him (Jesus) after getting drunk from the water he turned into wine.’

(Source: http://ghanasoccernet.mobi/kwarasey-trains-before-home-crowd-for-the-first-time/)

This comment was directed at another user, who favored another player as first-choice keeper.

But taking all of these observations together, my suspicion is just that ‘ingrate’ is used where they study more Shakespeare (and used less where they used to study more Shakespeare).

1. Relevant context here is the fact that the message, ‘The PAP led the building of Singapore,’ was clearly the message most thoroughly developed in public discourse, in a year that afforded several occasions to invite Singaporeans to collectively reflect on the nation’s history.
2. E.g. Singaporeans are politically apathetic and individualistic, Singaporean youth are influenced by Western liberal ideas and aren’t conscious of local history, etc.

Doing ‘Discourse’ (Part I): Situating and Qualifying CDA

The main problems Chilton considers in his chapter on ‘Missing links in mainstream CDA’ (published in this volume) have to do with CDA’s foundational claims. Taking inspiration from Chilton’s book chapter, I would identify three of these claims, namely that:

  1. Language-use is, among other things, social practice.
  2. CDA is useful or otherwise valuable to human society.
  3. Discourses exist, we know what they are, they are analyzable, and they are worth analyzing.

I see these claims as being ‘foundational’ in that they situate CDA relative to some starting point in the preexisting literature, as well as motivate (i.e. provide a rationale for) the project of CDA.

Beginning with the first claim, if language-use (and language-constituted ‘discourse’) is social practice, then one implication is that CDA is as relevant as anything else that has come in the tradition of social theory (power, consent, etc.) and social critique (exposing power structures, demystifying previously ‘opaque’ concepts, etc.). If one accepts the relevance, validity, or usefulness of the body of social theory I have broadly alluded to, it follows that one would appreciate the significance of the CDA project at least along those dimensions.

This particular implication is also relevant to the second claim I identify, about the usefulness of CDA. Thus, when Chilton brings the ’emancipatory’ mission and ‘demystifying’ function of CDA into question, we have a ready response, insofar as language is indeed social practice, and insofar as we buy into the general body of social theory. In our class discussion, as well, I found many of the arguments for the usefulness of CDA to be true for the usefulness of social theory in general, e.g. the value of being able to analyze and discuss social processes.

This is one sense in which ‘CDA’ claims to be ‘Critical’ – but we see that the function of ‘Critical’ here is also to situate CDA relative to the tradition of social critique. (Although I would also argue that the main ‘Critical’ it situates itself against is theory of literary criticism, as developed in the Western academy; Chilton doesn’t question this move in his article, however.)

However, even if we are able to achieve some understanding of social processes as enacted through language through the practice of CDA in the mode it currently adopts, Chilton questions our readiness to affirm the potential of this understanding in enacting social change. Can we really claim to be able to understand the bases of linguistic behavior and social behavior in a way that is comparable to how a financial analyst or policy-maker might claim to understand the behavior of economic actors in a certain system, or how a chemical engineer might claim to understand the physical principles governing the efficiency of a production process? Are social and linguistic behaviors ‘manageable’ in similar ways, and can we indeed claim to be contributing to the achievement of some socially beneficial outome(s) when we do CDA?

In Chilton’s evaluation, mainstream CDA has not addressed these questions, leaving an explanatory gap that undermines CDA’s claims about the ’emancipatory effects’ of the enterprise, and its claims about the social utility of the enterprise more generally. In comparison, Chilton discusses how an evolutionary-biological theory of cognition has greater explanatory power than CDA, when it comes to explaining social behavior and linguistic behavior (e.g. in the model explaining how apparently small ‘cultural inputs’ are enough to lead to persistent and significant cognitive biases).

But ultimately it is the third foundational claim which I wish to expand on, partly because I didn’t hear it come up during class discussion very much, and partly because Chilton is quite oblique when he alludes to this problem, to the point that it almost doesn’t appear as a problem in the discussion. I will expand on this in Part II.