Better, more precise use of language would not solve everything, but it would help society better navigate the obstacles of vague meaning and foggy perception. More people might come to appreciate the difference between allegations and evidence and be less likely to dunk witches. A straightforward politician might even impress voters
Contrast two statements, which I saw in the Daily Telegraph last Friday. The first is by Luke Foley. “The allegations against me today made public by the ABC are false.” The second is by Scott Morrison. “The alleged behaviour of Mr Foley is very, very shocking and concerning.” For obvious reasons I do not want to comment on what did or did not happen between Foley and Ashleigh Raper. One of my reasons is that I wasn’t there. What I do want to comment on is the declining standards of English expression as it applies to this case and later, in a complete change of pace, to the latest horrific Islamic terrorist attack in Melbourne.
Foley’s reported comment above is fine in respect of the English language. Morrison’s is not. What exactly is he saying? Is he simply saying that the act of a man, any man, uninvited on a social occasion putting his hand down the back of a woman’s dress and inside her knickers is shocking. I would agree with that. It is beyond the pale. I can think of lots of other things which are beyond, and well beyond, the pale. But, of course, he puts Foley in his sentence.
If he felt the need to put Foley explicitly in his sentence, he needed to say one of two things. He could have dropped the word ‘alleged’. His objection to this might be that he did not want to prejudge the allegation. Fine, and very sensible. The other thing he could have said is this: “If the allegation is true, the behaviour of Mr Foley is shocking etc.” As it is, he is quite between stools. An allegation is just that. And if any allegation proves to be untrue then perforce however shocking is the alleged offence, it is not shocking at all because it never happened. If something never happened then it cannot be shocking. Do you think Morrison will be able to understand that? I hope so.
A second example is an article I read by Sharri Markson, also in the Daily Telegraph. She starts out this way. “As a politician Luke Foley counted on a woman’s silence and timidity – regardless of the truth or falsity of his accusers claims.” I ask, quite honestly, what does this mean? How did it ever get past a subeditor? The article does not improve as it goes on, but I will leave that aside.
Josephine Blow now claims that some years’ ago she saw me swinging a cat against a wall by its tail. I deny ever doing any such thing. Now answer me this? Did I count on Ms Blow’s reluctance to come forward? Or, if in fact I did not commit the offence, did I naturally assume that Ms Blow would keep schtum about something which didn’t happen. It turns, does it not, on whether I am indeed a cat-killer or innocent? To say that someone counted on someone else’s silence about something that didn’t happen is a nonsensical proposition.
Nonsense is everywhere these days, particularly as the intelligence of politicians appears to be in serial decline. At no other time can this be more acutely observed than when bloody Islamic terrorism strikes. As it did again in Melbourne last Friday. “These are traumatic events, they are terrifying,” the Australian reported Daniel Andrews as saying and then adding: “We will not be defined by this.” At these times, political leaders need to talk plainly to concerned citizens. If we were to be defined by Islamic terrorism exactly what would that look like? Then we might know what not being defined in that way looks like. Me, I don’t know what Andrews is talking about. Please explain, comes to mind.
Morrison chose a different word to describe what Islamic terrorism wouldn’t do to us. “Australians will never be intimidated by these appalling attacks,” he was reported as saying. So, to sum up, we will neither be defined nor intimidated by Islamic religious fanatics who kill us randomly on the streets and in places where we congregate for entertainment. But, but… haven’t we already been defined and intimidated by these things?
Recently I bought a home safe. But you understand I am not intimidated by burglars who might want to steal my paltry valuables. I am wary of walking alone down streets in rough neighbourhoods. But you understand I will not be defined by that. Ordinary people, like me, have no idea what Andrewss and Morrison are saying? That is because there is no intelligent thought behind their clichéd sound bites.
In common-sense land, ugly bollards are testament to us being defined by and intimidated by Islamic terrorists, as are inconvenient stepped-up security measures at entertainment and sporting venues and airports. Apparently, the FBI in the United States has potential Islamic terrorists on its watch list in every state. Imagine how the costs and imposts of security have been ramped up in Europe and in Australia. Then we have those ridiculous de-radicalization programs. At the same time, calls for stopping Muslim immigration are politically incorrect, not to say racist – which, in itself, is a curious term to apply to a religious grouping. In another, more-intelligent age, people would readily understand that race is something you can’t change whereas religion crosses races and is a choice.
Let me see if I’ve got it. We are not defined nor intimated by Islamic terrorism. Yet we have uglified the environment, placed ourselves in security straitjackets, and have been bullied into accepting the immigration of more adherents of a religion which produces fanaticism and violence.
Better and more precise use of language would not solve everything. But it would, I think, make society a better place. For example, people would recognise the stark difference between allegations and evidence and be less likely, so to speak, to dunk witches. People would be impatient with meaningless clichés and more likely to elect straightforward politicians who tell it as it is.
PS: The PM’s later remarks on the dire threat of radical Islam – for which he is apparently being criticised by the usual suspects – were on the money in telling it as it is. Goodonya, ScoMo. Don’t back down.