|Montreal, March 16, 2002 / No 100|
by Ralph Maddocks
As I started to write this, various commentators were reminding me that the six-month's anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 would be eulogized on at least one US television station. Isn't the definition of an anniversary something along the lines of "Recurring at the same date in succeeding years." or "The annual return of any remarkable date; the celebration of such a recurring date." Can I be mistaken? Are we not really at a point half-way between that abhorrent event and its anniversary?
I began then to ponder how other words have changed their meanings over
especially in this era of political correctness. Numerous examples abound
and readers may be interested, and perhaps even surprised, by some of the
changes of meaning which have occurred to Shakespeare's tongue. While there
are literally hundreds of examples from which to choose, space permits
mention here of just a few.
One word unloved by libertarians is censorship, a word which most of us wrinklies believed meant the government banning a book, film, play or painting, or prohibiting certain news from being published. It has however acquired two new and quite creative meanings. Firstly, there is the meaning attributed to it that something is censored if the government has declined to provide taxpayer's money to finance it. For example, in Britain, a play by the former Trotskyite Tariq Ali attacked the British Prime Minister Tony Blair and was said to be censored because the Royal National Theatre, which is state financed, would not produce it. While it was eventually produced in another theatre it received a rather less than delirious reception, and the charge of censorship still persists.
A second meaning of censorship is when a newspaper or magazine refuses to provide constant and conspicuous space for views which are contrary to its own or which criticize the paper's owner. The fact that daily attacks on the owners of the National Post, the Asper family, do not appear may be held up as an example of censorship. There are some who would take this second meaning even further. McDonald's (of which more later) was said to be censoring its opponents when it refused to provide, at its own expense – that is at the expense of you the consumer – leaflets attacking the very hamburgers which its numerous customers appear to enjoy.
McDonald's is the name borne by what appears to most of us to be a ubiquitous chain of restaurants serving, almost instantly, somewhat unoriginal food designed primarily to meet the voracious appetites of teenagers with undiscriminating palates. In these days, McDonald's has become a synonym for all that is perfidious and to be opposed to it has become some sort of emblem of courage. In these days, no self respecting demonstrator would ever leave a McDonald's unstoned. Despising McDonald's is much easier than doing something which would diminish the problems for which the company is erroneously and endlessly blamed. In recent times, McDonald's has found itself appointed as the representative of global capitalism. The exploitation of the poor, the killing of animals, the destruction of the world's forests, third world poverty, malnutrition and the deliberate extermination of French culture have all been laid at its door. Just ask the notorious Mr. Bové.
I find this quite humorous since McDonald's has probably done more to create the kind of classless society so dear to the hearts of those anti-globalists who denounce it. At almost any time of the day one is just as likely to find a wealthy businessman and an impoverished pensioner queueing alongside schoolchildren for their daily allocation of what seem, to me at least, to be bland, uniformly prepared ground meat patties. McDonald's and its ilk bring together daily in one place what was once several solitudes, each ignorant of the other's ways and tastes.
There are many other words which have changed their meanings in recent times. Words such as capitalism, which, these days, frequently appears preceded by the word world or global. There was a time when the word capitalism was a noun indicating an economic system under which individuals employ capital and employees to produce wealth. The word became a term of abuse during the time of the French Revolution, acquiring later the prefix bloated. In the middle of the 19th century it became the general expression of socialist hatred of the modern world and was applied to the most hard hearted aspects of European life.
Capitalism enticed the peasantry to move into the cities and incited people to emigrate to the New World, and this meant that the socialists felt a need to transform it by shifting the foundations of social and economic life away from profit and in the direction of need. The end of the 19th century saw the term lose some of its negative tone and it was used by intellectuals such as Weber and Schumpeter to denote the modern world from an economic point of view. Hayek's vigorous defence of capitalism is invariably viewed by socialists as being analogous to venerating the devil.
In the 20th century, the enemies of capitalism were unceasing in their efforts to overthrow it, at least until the Soviet Empire disintegrated. Since then, much effort has been made to transform the economy (viewed as a cold and brutal form of selfishness by many) into a community, by using the coercive power of the so-called democratic state. Communities are greatly loved by politicians because they can collect and deliver votes. The adjective late is often applied to capitalism, a word which implies that something – an institution, belief, society or phase – is dead. While our world is certainly changing I can see no sign that its capitalist features are in danger of disappearing in the foreseeable future.
Another surprising term, especially in these very collectivist times, is the employment of the word Czar in the English speaking world. The word derives from the Russian Tsari which in turn comes from the Roman Caesar. Today there are Drug Czars, Traffic Czars, Energy Czars, Trade Czars, Hospital waiting list Czars; in fact more Czars than were ever envisaged by the Russian aristocracy. Luckily we haven't seen any Tsareviches or Tsarevnas yet, but the possibility cannot be excluded totally in these nepotic times.
For some reason unknown to me, politicians all seem to like to use military language; look at the task forces they produce, although undoubtedly they would use the verb launch. These task forces, sometimes masquerading as Royal Commissions, when launched, are invariably composed of time-serving ex-politicians or bureaucrats. Often, usually soon after their launching, these task forces submerge without trace. Task forces are most often launched by a Prime Minister or a Premier who frequently describes their assignment as a new initiative, another word favoured by those in high office. The need to announce initiatives is presumably to convince the population that something is being done.
Another military term in frequent use is mission, and in these days everyone it seems has a mission statement, most of which begin as follows. This "airline (or medical clinic, company, school, university, grocery store, hospital, church, police force, etc.) will provide the highest standard of service at all times." A statement which hardly ever has anything to do with reality. Consider the reverse of this statement, "We promise to provide the worst possible service on every possible occasion." Declaring that one aims to aspire to be the best, quickly becomes an excuse for not even providing the merely satisfactory. It used to be that a mission meant a body of individuals sent on a diplomatic errand or a group of Christian representatives sent to foreign parts to proselytise. Nowadays, many of these foreign lands are more Christian than the countries from which the proselytisers came.
Meeting the lofty aspirations of a company's mission statement often involves the unwilling departure of junior staff and, at best, a struggle to meet the erratic and changing instructions of a disoriented management. Looking over some of the mission statements of the better known companies, one learns that chemical company A's mission is to 'create value for the world at large.' Oil company B, aims to 'be a force for good in everything it does.' and grocery chain company C wishes to 'contribute to the quality of life of the whole community.' These statements are all full of ethical and politically correct talk about empowering, integrity, good corporate citizenship, acting responsibly, sustain-ability, etc. A mind numbing collection of pablum which may or may not help to meet the moral obligation of all companies, which is to increase shareholder value.
These mission statements also include words like equality, a word which may have its origins in its use in the American Declaration of Independence where it is asserted that "all men are created equal." I doubt if those who drafted that document believed that all men really were created equal with respect to their intelligence, physical capacities and talent. I doubt if they believed that these qualities were distributed evenly throughout all the population. The egalitarians in our society seem not to have understood that equality of opportunity can only lead to inequality of outcomes and that the clear differences between individuals must result inevitably in the formation of elites. As the physician and barrister, Charles Goodson-Wickes, put it, "Half the workforce want equality; the rest want greater differentials."
Equality is a word often seen in conjunction with words like social and justice the former being an adjective which seems automatically to reverse the meaning of any noun to which it becomes attached. Thus a social market economy is not a market economy, a social worker is not a worker and a social democracy is unquestionably not a democracy. The tag social democrat, which is so often applied to today's politicians, is an almost perfect example of an oxymoron. Their acts are often quite anti-social and they are not democrats but merely reformed Marxists from the 1960's garbed in expensive clothes. Their oft declaimed social justice is not justice either. Invariably, pursuit of this ideal leads to injustice. Our dictionaries define justice as a virtue which distinguishes between good and evil, insists upon respect for the rights of others and requires the punishment of wrongdoers. Today, it has come to mean a government-backed demand for the satisfaction of a lobby groups' desires at the expense of the law and the common good. Social justice also crops up in any discussion of 'Minority rights,' and as we all know a minority is something to which it is a good thing to belong. However, it is conceivable that if one belongs to too many minorities one could wind up belonging to the majority which, it is said, is not a good thing at all.
Justice is a topic about which many of us like to talk, but it is hard to find agreement about what is or is not just. This is most likely because almost everyone thinks it to be a matter of opinion. Why else would we hear that frequent response to a moral problem "Who am I to judge?"
In the latest pseudo-budget proclaimed by our political masters in Ottawa, a large sum of money was to be made available for foreign development aid. A very large sum indeed, at least by our standards if not by those of the Cabinet Ministers charged with distributing it. This is just the latest example of a system in which the poor taxpayers of our (relatively) rich country have their hard earned tax monies transferred to the Swiss Bank accounts of the despots of poor countries. Of course, holding such views can easily attract charges of discrimination, of which the worst kind today is racial discrimination. This is followed closely by discrimination of the sexual kind or, as is becoming common today, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Originally, the word meant to observe a difference, and a dictionary published in the year before I was born described the discriminating person as being 'discerning, acute;' rather a complimentary description in fact.
All these words once meant something good, today they often mean something bad. There was a time when the word access meant something which you had or did not have; as in having access to a building or to information. Today, it is considered that everyone ought to have access and that if they do not, then it is considered to be unjust and must be rectified. It is, for example, a frequently held view that everyone should have access to higher education and if they cannot contend with the entrance examination they are then considered to have been denied that access.
Most of these changes are coming about because certain people wish to change the world in which they live. Somewhat capriciously, they think that changing the meaning of a word will alter the things which that word describes. For example, they believe that by changing the names which formerly we used to describe the disabled (or those mentally or physically different in some way), the unkind treatment the disabled sometimes receive will be changed. Examples of this abound in the multiculturalism / racism minefield. It has been pointed out too that all these meanings have changed in the direction of collectivist-socialist-progressive, none ever seem to change their meaning towards the conservative or even libertarian model.
Of course, all this poses problems for the non-socialists in the writing professions. How can they be sure that the word they wrote will be understood in precisely the same sense in which they used it? Might they be thought to be supportive of the ideology now conveyed by the word? Perish the thought.
In conclusion, I wish the Québécois Libre a happy fourth anniversary. A real one this time.
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