Sunday, 2 March 2008

Weasel words

Sixty years ago George Orwell, that tough-minded scourge of mental and moral laziness and political humbug, wrote a classic essay on Politics and the English Language, lamenting how far the insidious undermining of clear thought had gone with the spreading habit of using political labels as terms of mindless insult and vulgar abuse, without any attempt at invoking their original meaning. As he pointed out in another piece, a recent survey in America had shown that ‘fascism’ meant anything from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’ to different people. In England, ‘pro-fascist’ was being indiscriminately used by the Left to denote all Conservatives, whether appeasers or anti-appeasers, and other traditional patriotic non-socialist organisations. On the other hand, defenders of old-style capitalism asserted that socialism and fascism were the same thing; while an array of right-wing thinkers refused to recognise any distinction between fascism and communism, maintaining that they both aimed at identical societies and even comprised some of the same people. Stalinist communists accused trotskyists of being crypto-fascists, in the pay of the Nazis. Outside its own ranks, the Catholic church was almost universally regarded as pro-fascist.

It would be interesting to know what Orwell would have said about political discourse today, not least on the internet. While I cannot emulate his incisiveness and unrivalled debunking powers, I can at anyrate vent my spleen at the futility and sheerly destructive nature of much that passes for informed debate, not only in the mainstream media but also in the blogosphere. The manipulative concept of ‘Political Correctness’, unheard of in Orwell’s day, is the first hurdle to be crossed. Originally put forward as a salutary antidote to much prejudiced assumption and near-unconscious bias, PC has morphed into a cudgel wielded by verbal bullies to silence any point of view they dislike or consider unacceptable. It is no longer sufficient for the PC person to register disagreement with another point of view: they proceed to assert that it is so obnoxious that it has no right to be heard, and should in fact be banned. In recent years they have even notched up some legislative scalps in the form of laws banning racial, religious and other ‘hate speech’ on the pretext that such opinions are so offensively hurtful to their targets that they must not be publicly uttered. This is the thin end of a very thick wedge indeed. Proponents of Political Correctness are no friends of free speech, and are, whether they admit it or not, in the murky business of thought control.

Another favourite ploy of the uncandid debater is to damn the message because he or she dislikes the messenger. Thus, those on the virtuously self-preening Left dismiss anything said by right-wingers, even moderate ones, as obvious nonsense and not worthy of consideration. This leads to a glaring imbalance in what is nowadays deemed acceptable public debate. The Left’s self-righteous cry of “No platform for racists or fascists” is an attempt to blot out a variety of widely held strands of opinion which are self-evidently neither racist nor fascist. Whether or not today’s British National Party is – apart from its historic roots –‘ fascist’ in any meaningful sense is a moot point; whether its stance on immigration is ‘racist’ is also debateable. But these not unimportant questions never are debated in the mainstream media, and scarcely at all on the blogosphere: they are simply taken for granted by almost everyone except those on the extreme political Right, whose actual or ostensible opinions and policies therefore go virtually unscrutinised and undissected. This, in fact, makes such extremist views even more dangerous than they otherwise would be, because the large swathe of the general public whose prejudices and lack of balanced knowledge of the issues may incline them to be sympathetic to BNP-type views on ‘alien’ immigrants have their bias reinforced by a sneaking sympathy for a perceived underdog who is being unfairly silenced by the Politically Correct.

Another adverse consequence of the drive to exclude certain views from public debate is that, in the absence of strongly combative debate, political illiteracy flourishes. Genuine education occurs through exposure to a whole range of opinions – wise, daft, erudite, ignorant, tolerant, intolerant. Capable and conscientious teachers are not in the business of indoctrination; it is their business to draw out [educare] from their pupils a reflective response to the variety of human sense and idiocy they encounter in the world of the past and the present. Free speech is the bedrock of democracy. Subject to the interests of national security as defined by parliament, the only limit which should legitimately be placed on it is the prosecution of direct incitement to violence and the right of individuals to obtain redress for libellous defamation. Banning so-called ‘hate speech’ is the first lurch down an endless slippery slope towards an Orwellian ‘big brother’ regime. As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, when anyone’s opinion is forcefully suppressed, the whole of society is the loser. Poisonous and hate-filled views are more effectively combated out in the open, just as the first step towards healing a boil is to lance it and let the pus out.

What strikes one forcibly about the blogosphere is the irritably truculent, hostile tone of much of the discussion on sites such as the Guardian’s comically named ‘Comment is Free’ [in fact, a heavily censored PC forum] and other political blogs such as ‘Harry’s Place’. All too often there is no serious attempt to evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of the posts being commented upon; all most of the participants want is a puerile slanging march between combatants sniping at one another from entrenched positions and not in the least concerned to seek common ground, but only to ‘prove’ that their adversaries are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG [often adding that they are stupid and ugly as well and have naff hair styles]. For someone like myself, who came fresh-faced to blogging naively expecting an intelligent exchange of views between mostly sensible people, all this came as rather a shock until I realised that the underlying impulse behind a lot of this school playground bullying is fear - an emotion I share with them, because we are all living in a nightmarish world at the start of a new century which bids fair to become the most nightmarish of any yet known in human history. But this sombre fact surely makes it all the more important that everyone should do their level best to keep a cool head, and strive to find as much common ground as we can to safeguard what slim chances we have of survival.

Insult is no substitute for reasoned opposition, and the current widespread use of insult in place of sensible debate is futile and silly. In recent weeks I have been labelled by other bloggers a ‘racist’, a ‘neo-Con’, and a ‘pseudo-liberal bigot’. I don’t recognise myself as any of these – except maybe a bigot for the maximum individual and collective freedom of thought, speech and action compatible with a democratic society. In fact, I am not prepared to settle for anything less.

More than a century ago that astringent [not to say cynical] American observer of his contemporary scene, Ambrose Bierce, compiled his Devil’s Dictionary – aptly named, as it shows how people play the very devil with words. Bierce’s definition of politics was “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. And he said that “as compared with the statesman, the politician suffers the disadvantage of being alive.” A Conservative, Bierce said, was a politician “who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others”.

His example emboldens me to end with a list of fashionable political boo-words, and their assumed meanings. Continuing first with American politics, it is clear that differing uses of political labels on opposite sides of the Atlantic are a rich source of European/American misunderstanding. To an American, a Conservative is a patriot whose allegiance centres upon preserving the near-sacred tenets of the Constitution. To the European, conservatives are right-wing adherents to traditional values, especially those of Christianity. This is less clearly so in Britain, where conservatism since Mrs Thatcher is still searching for a platform which will renew its public appeal.

Americans – conservative ones at any rate – use ‘liberal’ to denote someone whose ideas on social policy are even mildly In favour of state intervention and increased public spending. Such people are considered dangerous, because they threaten the unlimited freedom of private enterprise, and are also believed to be less patriotic over foreign policy insofar as they might be prepared to concede in some instances that American perspectives may require questioning. American ‘liberals’ are also seen as the Trojan horse for socialism which, to most Americans, is synonymous with Stalinist communism and tyranny. European liberals are, by contrast, regarded even by their opponents as staunch upholders of an open society and pluralism. The European tradition of democratic socialism seems to have passed America by almost entirely, with the consequence that Americans quite wrongly equate the Left in Western Europe as unwitting stooges for totalitarian infiltration, either by militant Islam or authoritarian Russia. The confusion is compounded in America by the recent addition of the prefix ‘neo’ to the traditional terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. Neo-conservatives and neo-liberals are entirely distinct animals to their predecessors – and to some still surviving traditionalists, who repudiate them.

In Britain, the most shaming political boo-word tossed around by the PC brigade is ‘racist’. This term is used indiscriminately by the totalitarian left groupuscules to vilify and, they hope, to silence, anyone who questions the viability of extremist religious creeds and imported tribalist cultural practices some of which strike indigenous British people as abhorrently primitive. As I have indicated earlier, this is a debate in which it is imperative to engage if we are to work out a way of living peaceably together in an open, tolerant society with our immigrant population and their British-born descendants.

Words, as Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, are slippery things. ‘Democracy’ itself was purloined by the Stalinist communists in the post-war mid-20th century to misdescribe their East European satellite puppet states and to throw dust into Western eyes. Today, ‘Fascist’ is still being flung around as recklessly as it was in Orwell’s day, closely followed by ‘bigot’. ‘Fundamentalist’ is a term of abuse for religious people who are so misguided as to take the teachings of their chosen faith seriously. ‘Moderate’ is usually – though not always – intended as a compliment, but often with an undertone of condescension because ‘moderates’ don’t brandish their political banners around as fervently as the committed armchair warriors. We are indeed now living in the era which W.B. Yeats forecast in ‘The Second Coming’, where

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”


Richard W. Symonds said...

Ambrose Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" reminds me of John Pilger's phrase "The Vocabulary of Lies"...which puts me in mind of Edward S. Herman's "Doublespeak Dictionary"...included within "BEYOND HYPOCRISY - Decoding The News In An Age Of Propaganda" (1982 - Black Rose)...Edward Herman of Herman & Chomsky's "Propaganda Model" and "The Political Economy of Human Rights".

Richard W. Symonds said...

Sorry, "Beyond Hypocrisy" was published in 1992, not 1982.

anticant said...

Criticising the Politically Correct is a risky business. As a result of this post being reproduced, by request, on another blog I have been accused of being ‘obsessed’, ‘deluded’, ‘racist’, ‘anti-Arab’, a ‘liar’, an ‘inventor’, and a producer of ‘bigoted, self important waffle’.

Oh dear, oh dear! Someone needs to take an overdue ice-cold bath…..

Or, as Michael Winner would say, "Calm down, dear".

donpaskini said...

Accusing people who support laws against incitement to racial hatred of being in the business of thought control is an example of exactly the kind of purile insult which you seem to think is such a problem in political discussion on the blogosphere.

I don't get the sense from this post that you are remotely interested in having an intelligent exchange of views. If you are, then it would be (genuinely interesting) to hear you pick up on any or all of the following:

*The 'thin edge of a thick wedge' argument about banning hate speech. How does this work? I think that there are more opportunities for people to speak freely and debate than there were, say, thirty years ago, and that part of this is that hate speech used to act to a much greater extent than it does now in preventing many people from being able to speak freely or have their opinions valued.

*No platform. It just isn't the case that whether the BNP is fascist or its stance on immigration is racist is only debated on the far right. The tactic of No Platform is debated constantly right across the political spectrum. In addition, what *evidence* is there that referring to the BNP as fascist helps to make people more sympathetic to the BNP (e.g. polling data, case studies, anything which would distinguish this claim from unsupported assertion).

*'Poisonous and hate-filled views are more effectively confronted out in the open', I'm sympathetic to this view, but what's the evidence for it?

anticant said...

donpaskini: Beginning your comment with a puerile insult – “I don't get the sense from this post that you are remotely interested in having an intelligent exchange of views” – isn’t the best way to encourage me to enter into a debate with you.

You may not consider laws restricting the expression of negative opinions or prejudice against particular groups or beliefs as being exercises in ‘thought control’, but I do. Although I myself belong to a group which has been heavily discriminated against – and indeed unjustly criminalised - in the past, I think it is better that hostile opinions should be confronted and argued against openly in the public arena rather than allowing their proponents the luxury and publicity of legal martyrdom. Direct incitement to violence, and actual violence arising from such incitement, is an entirely different matter.

I’m not clear what you mean by asking “what *evidence* is there that referring to the BNP as fascist helps to make people more sympathetic to the BNP”, as I didn’t make that assertion. What I said was that denying the BNP a platform on the ground that they are ‘fascist’ enables them to seek public sympathy by posing as ‘victims’ and ‘underdogs’. People who aren’t well informed about the BNP’s actual policies and practices, but who feel vaguely sympathetic to what they believe is their general stance on issues which aren’t being adequately addressed by the other parties, are more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt and vote for them if they haven’t been exposed to detailed scrutiny through public debate.

donpaskini said...

There is a trade-off, on the no platform issue. On the one hand, the BNP can pose as 'victims' and 'underdogs', and on the other they are denied the opportunity to put across their message. I don't think there is any evidence that this overall benefits their level of support, but would be interested to see any evidence that you have.

Since the 1970s, we have given people who incite racial hatred the 'luxury and publicity of legal martyrdom' - and the last thirty years have seen widespread rejection of a lot of racist ideas which were widely supported back in the 1970s. Again, this suggests that anti-discrimination laws work in changing people's minds and in confronting hostile opinions effectively.

anticant said...

It is impossible to provide evidence of the kind you ask for, as the alternative situation is hypothetical. You cannot tell whether a particular pill is working without convincing scientific evidence of what your condition would be if you weren't taking it. Any more than you can prove the 'efficacy' of prayer.

The BNP is a legal political party, so what is the justification for "denying them the opportunity to put across their message" - sometimes violently, as in the recent disgraceful demonstration at Oxford? The fact that you dislike their message, and think it is socially and politically harmful, is not a good reason for attempting to stifle it.

The "no platform for fascists" policy is wrong in principle and of dubious utility. It gives them a valid pretext for denying you a platform when they are strong enough. Also, it is based upon the arrogant assumption that you know better than the public at large what the public is entitled to hear, and assumes that - unlike you - they are too stupid to judge sensibly for themselves. Like all censorship, it is essentially elitist and totalitarian.

Richard W. Symonds said...

"The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen"

Tommy Smothers

bwook said...

I Second Mr Symonds, you chaps,

Jose said...

Who said he was ready to fight anyone who denied the freedom of a bigot to express her/his opinion despite this being contrary to his thoughts (or words to the effect)? I agree with Anticant that the BNP should be listened to because it is the only way to publicly understand and fight its discourse. To resort to disqualifications for the mere fact that it is a known elitist party does not really counter its propositions.

It's long now since when we relished listening to dialectical speeches and bright oratory in politics and I must say here Anticant is a valued representative of those times. His analyses are something that should never be slighted and as happens with an intelligent person - that he is - be considered in depth and carefully.

As I use to say haste is not a good counsellor.

Richard W. Symonds said...

I always try to express my view using my own words...but sometimes other people do a far, far better job - and I (for one) am indebted to them :

Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime. ~Potter Stewart

Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too. ~Voltaire

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. ~Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

Did you ever hear anyone say, "That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?" ~Joseph Henry Jackson

Assassination is the extreme form of censorship. ~George Bernard Shaw, "The Rejected Statement, Part I," The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, 1911

The test of democracy is freedom of criticism. ~David Ben-Gurion

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people. ~John F. Kennedy

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. ~Noam Chomsky

Take away the right to say "fuck" and you take away the right to say "fuck the government." ~Lenny Bruce

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. ~Voltaire

bwook said...

AND Don't forget:

"Language is a virus."

(Wm S Buttoughs, d 1997; and featured to-night on 'Radio 4', in an /hommage/ by the inimitable Laurie Anderson!)

ALSO, The distinction between 'public opinion' (/Times/ leaders) and 'popular opinion' (MORI reports) allows even more room for condescending professionalisticaloid weaseling. Sad but true, the snotty from-on-high tone of loads of State Liberallists produces the very effect that these important & expensive credentialled persons were so ostensibly anxious to avoid, and indeed to eliminate.

BNP Has a regrettably shrill tone; but, the 'real' point -- at least to /competently/ adventitious meliorists! -- is that there /is/ an irreducible statistical element who (in American) "can't go" people too much different than themselves. It is perceived by these persons as actually threatening and sadistic of me, for instance, who not only can speak several language but who positively 'ran away' to become mahometan, to parade these lamentable preferences and actually glory in the company of exotic companions, to entertain them in my home and, moreover, serve up their viands and beverage to other visitors, ones moreover white....

A Little good manners and a praiseworthy dissumulation by persons who enjoy more spacious psychic ranges is highly in order.