Saturday, 17 September 2011

Squaring the circle

I don't listen to the BBC World Service so much these days, but this morning I happened to tune in to The Forum. The format was a three-way discussion this time on the subject of Activism. The participants were a French architect, a South Korean economist, and an Australian "anarchist" poet, John Kinsella, who's a fellow at Churchill College in Cambridge. It was a provocative discussion.

I was particular interested in their discussion of language, kicked off by the poet who advocates "linguistic disobedience", which I think means resisting the way that language is used as a system of control' ie scepticism about words and control. It reminded me a bit of what I wrote yesterday about the Nazis' use of "compassion" in the early 20th century. We have not to collude when language is manipulated by those with power and influence. For example, government spokesmen construct the myths they want us to believe by their selection of terms - as the saying goes, one man's terrorist is someone else's freedom-fighter. Kinsella talked about writing a poem trying to prevent the death-sentence on an Australian in Singapore in which he stripped away the rhetoric and describe the event as it is: "the executioner will eat a meal before and after"; as he said, "Anyone who takes a life is a hypocrite." When meanings are hijacked, imperceptible control is exercised without our realising.

It's a technique I've come across among the campaigners for euthanasia. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (whose purpose was what it said on the packet) rebranded itself, a few years ago, as Dignity in Dying, and took to talking about Assisted Dying rather than Suicide. There are four ways of dying: natural death, accidental death, being killed and killing oneself. There's also an attempt to hijack "compassion" to legitimise putting an end to someone's life prematurely. One needs to ask, "What's the agenda beneath replacing plain English with gobbledy-gook?"

Other interesting hijackings include "having a baby" and "marriage". Picture a couple. The wife discovers she's pregnant, "Honey, we're having a baby!" The politically correct man replies, "No, dear, you're carrying a foetus." And I guess 99% of the population would consider "marriage" to mean what it's always meant, the union of a man and woman for companionship, procreation and family life. But not for much longer. The meaning of the word is being manipulated to create a new myth.
I'm indebted to Paul Huxley for this sardonic comment on the official redefining of words.
"Square circles to become legal

"In a groundbreaking move, the government is set to introduce square circles.

"The Deputy Minister for Shapes commented: 'It is time that we gave true equality to circles, not only to rectangles. Why shouldn't circles be considered square?.'

"Under the new law, mathematicians and geometrists who object to this redefinition will be allowed to continue using the old definitions, and definitely won't be forced to use the new terms in their research papers. However, all Maths teachers will be required to use the new definitions with their students.

"A spokesman for the fundamentalist group, The League of Geometrists, objected to the new rules: 'How can a circle be square? It is a contradiction in terms. If it remains circular, how can it consist of four lines of equal length?'

"But the Prime Minister, supporting the move, said: 'This move will be supported by all tolerant, welcoming, broad-minded people.'"


  1. Do you think "telling it like it is" (rather than using manipulative language or euphemisms) was what Jesus meant when he said "let your yes be yes and your no be no"?

  2. Hi, Louise. Yes! And now you come to mention it, I suppose that's why he used parables, which when you think about it are utterly unmanipulative. The listener is left entirely free how to respond. I can't think of any occasion when he employed propaganda techniques.