Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Lapsed language and the 'mistaken war'

The things we say.

The late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once famously commented in a TV interview:
"Someone said 'football is more important than life and death to you' and I said 'Listen, it's more important than that'."
The Kop legend's quip is still treasured for its witty profundity. In truth, it was a crude absurdity.

No individual need be judged by one remark - Mr Shankly seemed an otherwise decent and humorous man. Yet, rhetorical flourish or faux pas, we often, even in jest, make points in ways which betray a very false sense of priorities.

Sometimes this can be motivated by a genuine desire to raise a moral issue or press for a response. But it can also involve an easy lapse into 'indignant-viewer-speak'.

Thus, one correspondent recently questioning the BBC over its use of loaded pro-Israel language reverted to this embarrassing trope:
"As a licence payer, I am requesting a formal review of the terms used in this and other such reports."
"Licence payer"? Shouldn't that be "As a human being, I am requesting..." or, perhaps, in more existential mood, "As a person of conscience I am..."?

Maybe both alternatives contain other forms of loftiness. But the habit of seeking explanations from officialdom can also lead us into similar kinds of official or market-speak, as in, 'I've paid my licence fee' or 'I consume your product', therefore I expect an explanation of the product's shortcomings.

There are, of course, valid and useful exceptions to this kind of approach. For example, one may helpfully write:
"As one of your parliamentary constituents, please could you explain your support for allowing deadly armaments destined to murder innocent civilians in (select from long list of countries) through UK airports."
In contrast, the "as a Guardian reader" line of complaint presupposes a prior importance of our consumer ethics rather than any more fundamental ethical responsibility over our fellow human beings' oppression.

I should, for the sake of accuracy, offer a personal admission here. It was actually yours truly who was responsible for the above "licence payer" indulgence.

In feeble mitigation, perhaps it was used in an 'unconscious' effort to elicit a more qualitative response from the Kafkaesque 'pp Boaden BBC complaints' unit. But, I suspect it might also have been indicative of my own deep conditioning to market life.

While otherwise happy with the actual content of the piece, the "licence payer" aspect made me reflect on how we so-easily slip into that kind of privileged Western-speak and market-shaped language. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more risible the term seems; to speak of Palestinian or any other suffering from the 'viewpoint' of an 'irate' licence payer mirrors the kind of 'liberal media humanism' one feels compelled to challenge.

The 'mistaken war' narrative

On which note, there's the unctuous sound of 'betrayed' hacks to consider.

I heard the Times columnist Magnus Linklater on Newsnight Scotland recently tell us that he and others had "been conned" into believing Blair's case for ousting Saddam and had, thus, supported the war on that basis.

Which, as I've noted elsewhere, raises the obvious question of why those millions of 'ordinary citizens' who marched in worldwide demos against the war were, seemingly, not conned.

Indeed, it's disturbing to consider the limited comprehension of many of our 'noted' politicians, journalists and academics on the war issue.

While many right and liberal voices veered between excited belligerence and tortured soul-searching, the left, in the main, was never confused, conned or ambivalent over the non-case for war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another notable contender for 'liberal outrage over the mistaken war' award is Sunday Herald diplomatic editor Trevor Royle.

Royle's recent article, "Why this war is Britain's biggest mistake in my lifetime...", contained this set of 'anguished' comments:
"Except it did not quite happen that way. Instead of being a huge step forward against global terrorism, Iraq has turned out to be the worst diplomatic disaster of modern times."
"I cannot think of a more sorry episode, or one that has caused so much international mayhem or so profoundly dented Britain's reputation."
"Even the military campaign did not live up to its billing. The 'shock and awe' aerial bombardment proved air power can only achieve so much."
And so the 'painful' reflecting and selecting goes on, from using Iraq Body Count's false "80,000" civilian death figure (rather than the Lancet's and ORB's million-plus fatalities) to the "of course, there have been some gains" line in queasy apologetics for 'Our Great Mistaken Adventure'.

In effect, the voice of 'concerned liberal reason' hiding its own complicity.

Royle is not alone in this kind of media sterility. Newsnight's Mark Urban is the model example of the form. Urban's reporting 'signature' is not just the sympathetic military 'embed' in Iraq or the prominence he gives to the Israeli spokesmen over the Qassam 'rocket problem'. It's also about how he reduces the discussion of basic human life to this kind of standard 'diplomacy-speak'. In turn, such 'map-pointing' dissection of conflict has the effect of insulating 'the viewer' - that is, other human beings - from the actual blood and gore of lost and brutalised lives.

Moral of the story? That even from the vantage point of opposing war, or taking issue with those who rationalise it, it's very easy to lapse into a bland language of 'concerned detachment' where mass suffering and the loss of life become something we express a dutiful, consumerist-type view on, or even make strong representations to others about, but don't really feel the 'emotional weight' of what's going on and why.

Sometimes it's useful simply to stop and think just what it must be like to live in such a state of apprehension and terror, fearing the miltary boot at the door, or the daily brutality at checkpoints or the F-16 coming in the night to wipe out your family. Sobering thoughts of human suffering 'elsewhere' that require both human empathy and real humanist language to discuss it.

Peace and awareness,

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