Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “weasel words”

What is terrorism?

Fifty years ago the National Party regime in South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which basically defined terrorism as opposition to the National Party and its policies, especially the policy of apartheid.

It made me particularly aware of the way words can be misused for political propaganda, and the entire Terrorism Act was an exercise in political propaganda — by defining their opponents as “terrorists” the National Party government hoped to frighten (intimidate, terrorise) doubters into supporting them. The Terrorism Act made nothing illegal that was not already illegal under numerous other laws, though it did increase the powers of the police to suppress opposition without interference by the courts.

So I became aware that “terrorism” and “terrorist” were weasel words, that could have the meanings sucked out of them as weasels were reputed to suck eggs. And since I was already a language pedant, I became yet more pedantic about words like “terrorist”.

I looked up “terrorist” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary:

terrorist, n. One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community.

Note that governments can be terrorist (as the National Party government was back in 1967 when they passed the Terrorism Act). And note too that it is not applied to individuals. An armed robber may inspire terror in his victims by the use of violence or the threat of it — to hand over valuables or reveal the means of access to them, eg by torturing someone to reveal the PIN of a credit card. But the robber is still a robber, not a terrorist.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, USA, has opened up this particular debate again — here’s an example in the graphic on the right, which appeared on Facebook soon after the shooting.

At the time of writing, police investigating the crime said that they had not discovered the killer’s motive, and it is his motive that would determine whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Perhaps further investigation will show that it was an act of terrorism, but for the moment it is too early to say.

For it to have been an act of terrorism, one has to know which community he was trying to coerce into doing what and why.

What his victims had in common was that they were Country Music fans attending a concert. If it can be shown that his aim was to intimidate country music fans into not holding concerts (any concerts? open-air concerts? only concerts in Las Vegas or concerts anywhere?) then yes, he was a terrorist, and his shooting was an act of terrorism.

But not every mass shooting is an act of terrorism, and not every mass murderer is a terrorist. Perhaps in this case the killer was just a misanthropist, and the concert-goers were just a convenient target for his misanthropy.

Before coming to hasty judgments about such things, read this article Six things to know about mass shootings in America | News | World | M&G:

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

And check here to see if you can pass the terrorism quiz.

A terrorist always has a clear message: this is what will happen to you if you carry on doing this, or if you don’t do that. Often the message is “support us, or else (this will happen to you)”.

If the message the perpetrator is trying to send is unclear and difficult to determine, the chances are he isn’t a terrorist.

 

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Brands and mavericks

I’ve read several articles claiming that the word most people hate most is “moist”. The word I hate most is “brands”. Well, one of the words, anyway.

Consider this, for example, 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts:

Realizing that millions more people are scratching their heads, wondering what to read and where to spend their subscription dollars, here are my top 10 large journalistic brands where I believe you can most often find real, reported facts:

The use of “brand” in that article is the main reason that I don’t trust it. Yes, I agree with the criteria mentioned in the article, but I’m not looking for reliable brands, I’m looking for reliable news.

Do you go into a shop and say “I’m looking for a brand?” or “What brand should I buy?”

And the shopkeeper might say “Brand of what? Screwdrivers, sticky tape or light bulbs?”

The use of “brands” in that article inclines me not to trust it, because it betrays the mentality of the profit motive.

Take a newspaper.

What is the primary purpose of a newspaper?

  1. To make a profit?
  2. To publish and disseminate news?

“Brand” is a marker word for those who take the first attitude — the primary purpose of a newspaper is to make a profit. So when considering whether to publish a story and how much space to give it, the main criterion for the editor is not whether it is true, or whether it will inform, but “How many papers will it sell?”

So when people talk about “brands” instead of newspapers, journals, magazines or broadcast news programmes, I really don’t trust what they are saying, because they are using marketing speak rather than English. “Brands” suggests smoke and mirrors, a con job, all image and no substance. The important thing about brands is always to be polishing their brand image, rather than improving the product.

Which brand do you prefer? Sunlight, Volkswagen, Dulux or All Gold?

Branding cattle

Doesn’t that depend on whether you are buying soap, cars, paint or jam?

Which brand do you recommend?
Try this one sir, it has seven cupholders.
But how well does it spread when you take it out of the fridge?

The word “brand” comes from cattle ranching in unfenced territory.

Cattle keepers would mark their cattle with distinctive brands to show which belonged to them and which to someone else.

An unbranded beast was called a “maverick“, because no one knew who it belonged to.

So which news outlet do I prefer?

The Daily Maverick, of course.

Weasel words: liberal (and gun control)

Though I still describe myself as a political liberal (I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party when it existed), it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what “liberal” means in conversation, whether written or oral.

As an ordinary adjective, “liberal” can mean free, generous, or unrestricted.

  • “Liberal abortion laws” are laws that allow unrestricted abortion.
  • “Liberal drug laws” are laws that allow unrestricted drug use.
  • “Liberal gun laws” are laws that allow unrestricted gun ownership.

Well, not quite, because the way many people speak and write, “liberals” are in favour of “gun control” (whatever that means).

At some point there is a cross-over from “liberal” in a general sense, meaning having few or no restrictions, and “liberal” as a political philosophy. And sometimes there is another inversion there too.

People often speak of “liberal” in the sense of a political philosophy as if it were the opposite of “conservative”.

Perhaps that is a hangover from 19th century British politics, when, from 1850 to 1920, the Liberal and Conservative parties were the main players on the political stage.

In fact the opposite of “liberal” (in the political philosophy sense) is not “conservative”, but “authoritarian”, and the opposite of “conservative” (again in the political philosophy sense) is not “liberal” but “radical”.

The result of all this is that when people use the word “liberal” it is often difficult to know what they are talking about without asking for more information.

And then there is the “gun control” that “liberals” are alleged to be in favour of.

It is rarely defined by those who use the term, so it is difficult to know what it means, other than that, whatever it is, those who use the term are against it.

But I assume that it means that people who are against it believe that owning a gun should be like owning a camera rather than like owning a motor vehicle.

When one buys a motor vehicle, it is registered, and has a distinctive number plate so that it can be identified, and one needs a licence to drive it on a public road, and in order to get a licence one needs to pass a test to show that one is competent to drive it without endangering other road users.

When one buys a camera, one does not need to register it, and though it has a distinctive serial number from the manufacturer, there is no central registry keeping track of who owns which camera.

The difference is, of course, that when used incompetently, carelessly or recklessly both guns and motor vehicles can cause damage to property and injury or death to other people.

So I wonder if those who are against gun control are also against motor vehicle control and testing the competence of drivers. Do those who say that gun control means that only criminals will own guns also believe that only criminals own motor vehicles?

Weasel words: liberal (and gun control)

Though I still describe myself as a political liberal (I was a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party when it existed), it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what “liberal” means in conversation, whether written or oral.

As an ordinary adjective, “liberal” can mean free, generous, or unrestricted.

  • “Liberal abortion laws” are laws that allow unrestricted abortion.
  • “Liberal drug laws” are laws that allow unrestricted drug use.
  • “Liberal gun laws” are laws that allow unrestricted gun ownership.

Well, not quite, because the way many people speak and write, “liberals” are in favour of “gun control” (whatever that means).

At some point there is a cross-over from “liberal” in a general sense, meaning having few or no restrictions, and “liberal” as a political philosophy. And sometimes there is another inversion there too.

People often speak of “liberal” in the sense of a political philosophy as if it were the opposite of “conservative”.

Perhaps that is a hangover from 19th century British politics, when, from 1850 to 1920, the Liberal and Conservative parties were the main players on the political stage.

In fact the opposite of “liberal” (in the political philosophy sense) is not “conservative”, but “authoritarian”, and the opposite of “conservative” (again in the political philosophy sense) is not “liberal” but “radical”.

The result of all this is that when people use the word “liberal” it is often difficult to know what they are talking about without asking for more information.

And then there is the “gun control” that “liberals” are alleged to be in favour of.

It is rarely defined by those who use the term, so it is difficult to know what it means, other than that, whatever it is, those who use the term are against it.

But I assume that it means that people who are against it believe that owning a gun should be like owning a camera rather than like owning a motor vehicle.

When one buys a motor vehicle, it is registered, and has a distinctive number plate so that it can be identified, and one needs a licence to drive it on a public road, and in order to get a licence one needs to pass a test to show that one is competent to drive it without endangering other road users.

When one buys a camera, one does not need to register it, and though it has a distinctive serial number from the manufacturer, there is no central registry keeping track of who owns which camera.

The difference is, of course, that when used incompetently, carelessly or recklessly both guns and motor vehicles can cause damage to property and injury or death to other people.

So I wonder if those who are against gun control are also against motor vehicle control and testing the competence of drivers. Do those who say that gun control means that only criminals will own guns also believe that only criminals own motor vehicles?

Dealing with the electricity crisis "proactively"

Politicians really need to be more careful what they say.

Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ANC is reported as saying that we need to deal with the electricity crisis “proactively”. It is far too late for that. It should have been dealt with proactively 10 years ago. Any action taken now is simply reactive.

The Times – Article

South Africa’s electricity crisis was debated at length at the African National Congress’s three-day lekgotla which closed in Midrand on Sunday, said the party’s secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

The ANC would be looking into a number of interventions, he said.

‘Rather than being in a state of panic [we should] deal with the issue proactively because it is actually positive that the country is growing to the extent that we actually exhaust the energy capacity,’ he said.

Instead of viewing the problem as an energy crisis, it should be seen as an indication that more efficient energy consumption was needed.

To be proactive means to anticipate, and the crisis we face now is the result of a failure to anticipate.

For more than 10 years Eskom has channelled its infrastructure development into expanding the distribution network. That in itself should have led planners to anticipate increased demand by planning to build new power stations or at least bring mothballed ones back on line. Johannesburg City Council used to sell power to Eskom from its Kelvin power station.

Whether the problem was caused by the failure of Eskom to plan, or by political pressure from the government (as Cosatu claims), the fact remains that the problem is already here and it is much too late to be proactive about it, and the use of weasel words by politicians won’t solve the problem.

The only way we can deal with the crisis at this late stage is reactively, not proactively.

But there are different ways of dealing with problems reactively too.

One of the dangers of reacting to problems after they have occurred is that it is easier to look for a scapegoat than a solution.

An extreme example of that is the reaction of the commuters who set fire to trains, and now face a non-existent train service because the trains are ashes.

Such reactions are counter-productive.

But the same attitude is apparent in many comments in blogs on the topic, where some have demanded that Eskom planners be flogged and similar things.

Some have suggested that Eskom be sued for losses suffered as a result of the power cuts, and that would be about as effective in solving the problem as burning trains. It would mean that instead of spending money on increasing generating capacity, Eskom would be paying lawyers to defend lawsuits. And the people who would pay for that would be consumers who would have to pay higher prices.

Burning trains and suing Eskom show the futility of looking for a scapegoat rather than a solution.

The international community

Over on the alt.usage.english newsgroup my friend Tony Cooper said:

I also heard President Bush saying that North Korea has “defied the wishes of the international community” by performing a nuclear test. I’m glad the US never defies the wishes of the international community.

Tolerance

Fr Thomas Hopko said the following about tolerance, in a paper read to an Orthodox mission conference ten years ago. I think it’s very good and worth repeating:

Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation.

To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.

A bloke called Harry Blamires wrote a book The will and the way more than 40 years ago, and among other things he said (I quote from memory, having lent the book to someone who didn’t return it) that we should be clear about which God we prayed to this morning; was it the Christian God, or was it the God of twentieth-century sentimental theology, who grants us the dubious capacity to face all comers, friend or foe, with the same inscrutably acquiescent grin?

But that dubious capacity is what many people seem to mean by “tolerance” nowadays. Not only should we be tolerant, but we should also be reconcilers, seeking on every possible occasion to reconcile good with evil, justice with injustice, freedom with oppression. We should respect human rights, including the right that some people arrogate to themselves of killing and ethnic cleansing and oppressing others.

And this was the argument that conservatives used against liberals who opposed apartheid. “You call yourself a liberal, by why are you so intolerant of the Nationalists who want apartheid? Don’t they have a right to their opinion too?”

And so when Fr Tom says: “Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation” I think he hits the nail on the head.

(Also posted on my LiveJournal

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