Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, goes the children’s rhyme, but words can never hurt me. This old playground chant may soon require updating. Words, you see, do not necessarily have the meanings you think.

In political circles, the strange use of language has become daily more glaring. Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that she was intending to “ask” the best paid 10% of Scots to pay a little more tax. Ask? Request an answer? What this word means now appears to be “demand money with menaces”. For we are never "asked" to pay tax, it is demanded of us, with the might of the state ready and willing to enforce the demand. "Ask" is a deceptive word, used to mask the truth that we are talking about a demand backed by the threat of violence.

Thinking further on this request, there is a calculation evident behind the words. The request is not directed to an individual but rather placed before the entire electorate, collectively. Furthermore, the question is not “Are you willing to pay more tax”. Quite the contrary, it is “Are you, the ninety-percent, willing to receive more tax, which we will extract on your behalf, from those nasty ten-percent people". And lest anyone forget, we are talking here about the last remnants of the middle class, not the 1% of the 1% who use the system to protect their position and ensure that the benefits in productivity gains no longer accrue to all, but only to the elite. What we see here is the workings of a system of dividing and looting the people. The looting concentrates on that portion of society where further financial gains can be made; these days limited to the best paid 10% for the rest of society is barely making ends meet. The division being exploited is that old favourite rich v poor, which uses the human propensity towards envy. And the whole nasty brew is covered by the word "ask", to give it the appearance of decency, rather than of exploitation and expropriation.

“Access” is another popular term. An example might be, access to childcare, or access to contraception. This is a word which, like “ask”, is intended to disarm, to give the appearance of reasonableness. What does access mean, is it still “freedom or ability to obtain or make use of something”? Not quite, it now means “Free stuff”. No politician talks about access to buy milk at the supermarket. No, access is used to mean goods or services obtained without payment by the recipient, the cost being covered by wealth extracted from someone else.

“Care” is a further term that has made this cross-over. The dictionary definition is “painstaking or watchful attention”, but the Liverpool Care Pathway has shown that “Care” now means “death”. This is true for both the elderly and the unborn. This particular linguistic sleight of hand was made known to the public and so great was the outcry that the programme had to be stopped. Or was it merely renamed? We are starting to see reports that the Liverpool Care Pathway lives on in fresh guise, or is to be replaced by something even worse.

Or take the heartfelt desire of the SNP - "independence". Does this mean “neither subject to control by, nor relying upon support from, others?”. Not any more.  In a speech to The Utopian Studies Society, The SNP’s Mike Russell stated that Independence was “Practical Utopianism

For me, the independence debate is about the powers we need to tackle the deep-rooted challenges which face us – challenges like child poverty and gaps in educational attainment that, under the UK system, and under governments of all colours, have never been adequately tackled. But, more than that, it is a debate which starts with the question about what kind of Scotland we want to live in. And, that is a real utopian project.

In the spirit of Owen, it is a practical utopianism – one that is wide in its ambition and scope. In this sense, every single Scot is a negotiator of independence. The question that will be asked of every Scot in 14 months’ time won’t simply require a “yes” or “no” answer. And, it won’t merely ask them to side up with one or other political party. Rather, it will require them to envision a better Scotland – a Scotland that will exist - and to think how, by working with their fellow citizens, they could work toward making that vision real. And, the will be more of these visions, published over the weeks and months ahead.

So Scottish Independence is to be, by definition, a socialist utopia on the Robert Owen model. Something like New Harmony, Indiana perhaps. This was described by Josiah Warren, who was there and saw that the venture was doomed to failure due to a lack of individual sovereignty and personal property. He put it thus:

"We had a world in miniature — we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ... It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ... our "united interests" were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation ..." (Periodical Letter II 1856) 

How many Scots voting for independence thought it retained its original definition and had no idea they were voting for a “practical utopia”? How many know the blood-soaked history of human striving for utopia.

Then there is political violence; this, as Thomas E Woods has pointed out, involves a change in meaning:

One social media thread after another consists of people defending the practice of punching "Nazis," with the operative definition of "Nazi" now being "someone I happen to be punching right now."

To engage in political violence is now seen as virtuous by definition because, although the perpetrators are wearing black, are carrying red and black flags, have their faces covered and are smashing glass and heads, they are safe in the knowledge that the other guy is the fascist. If he is wearing a tweed jacket and cap, he is a well-dressed fascist, jeans and a tee shirt, an under-cover fascist and so on. Everywhere the violence is justified by the faux definition that its OK because "we are anti-fascist".

Italian screenwriter, playwright, novelist and journalist, Ennio Flaiano was familiar with this concept in 1960's Italy:

"In Italia i fascisti si dividono in due categorie: i fascisti e gli antifascisti."  (In Italy there are two types of fascists: fascists and anti-fascists). 

So words such as fascist and Nazi are now being used by those displaying all the traits of fascists and Nazis, right down to the black-shirted attire. They are being used as weapons, and the weaponised language is leading to violence on the streets. 

Words matter, words have meanings. In the hands of the political class, too often these meanings are being twisted to conceal the truth, deflect attention, and alter patterns of thought. Increasingly, they are now used to encourage violence. By noticing the real meaning of their words we can avoid being taken in; by telling others we can save them from false belief. If we can see clearly how and why language is manipulated to deceive the public, we can fight back with our own weapon. What weapon you ask? It was described most succinctly by Lew Rockwell when he said:

Never miss an opportunity to tell the truth