Sunday, May 31, 2015

Gary Judd: Our Poisoned Language

Our Poisoned Language is the heading to Chapter 7 of Nobel laureate Frederic Hayek's 1988 work The Fatal Conceit. 

It came to mind when reading a report in NBR — "English takes swing at critics on 'poverty'":
Asked about measures to tackle poverty and child poverty, Mr English told a Maxim-organised gathering in Auckland last night that those terms have been taken over by ideologues and the government does not trust the way those words are used.  
"The term 'poverty' has been captured by a particular idea of how you measure poverty and a particular solution to it. That is, you measure it relative to incomes, and the solution is mass redistribution."
Mr English and the government are entirely justified in not trusting the way those words are used. The ideologue promoted usage equates someone in New Zealand with a flatscreen TV, Sky, iPhones and iPads, with a beggar in a Third World country.

My purpose in this article is not to enter into a debate about the rights and wrongs of mass redistribution but to draw attention to the way our language is misused for political purposes. In the fore note to Chapter 7 Hayek quotes Confucius:
"When words lose their meaning people will lose their liberty".    
He says after examining some of the background to the development of language that "all usage of language is laden with interpretations or theories about our surroundings" and as a consequence, for example, "many widely held beliefs live only implicitly in words or phrases implying them and may never become explicit; thus they are never exposed to the possibility of criticism, with the result that language transmits not only wisdom but also a type of folly that is difficult to eradicate."

A contemporary example is "climate change". I heard Russell Norman being interviewed on his last day as leader of the Green Party, talking about how important the climate change issue is and the inadequacy of the measures being taken to combat it.

When the movement to force political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions started, its purpose was to combat man-made "global warming". The world was subjected to alarmist projections based on modelling and the dire consequences of global warming.

But the term "global warming" got a bad name because amongst other things what the models were predicting wasn't happening and some of the proponents of measures to combat global warming were shown to have engaged in questionable practices which belied the honest application of scientific method. To use the term "global warming" today would be to expose the users to widespread derision.

These days, Dr Norman and his like-minded propagandists seek to advance their political agenda by using the term "climate change" which is immunised from the negative connotations of "global warming". Climate change can never be exposed to the possibility of criticism because we all know that the climate is changing all the time. If something is stated clearly and explicitly, it can be examined for what it is. But if it is hidden away within a self-evidently valid concept, it can't be attacked.

Another example is "liberal" and "liberalism". Hayek draws attention to the deliberate deception practised by American socialists in their appropriation of the term 'liberalism'. He quotes Joseph Schumpeter's 1954 observation: "As a supreme if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label."  Liberalism originally encompassed the right to life, liberty and property most famously enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence's declaration that all men have the rights to "Life, and Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Te Ara Encyclopaedia of New Zealand describes early socialism in New Zealand. It notes that Labour's 1916 policy objective called for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. (The use of the term "socialisation" is itself an example of poisoned language — see below.)  Labour's policy objective adopted the aims of Marxists and other overseas socialists who had the aim of overthrowing capitalism and abolishing the wage-earning system. This meant abolition of private property and government ownership and control of the economy.

Another variant of socialism was that of the Nazis — National Socialism. Under this variant private property could remain but the government controlled the economy. This is the variant most commonly practised by governments around the world today. The extent to which the economies of the world are controlled by governments is only a matter of degree.

It is interesting to note, as an aside, that the means of exchange (money) has been completely nationalised. The government has a monopoly on the issue of money and the way it is used is controlled by governments either directly or through central banks as their proxies. There is a continuous tension between governments seeking to exert control through regulation and attempts by users of money to escape. This is an important topic which deserves separate consideration.

As 20th century socialism has shown, proponents of the socialist order have not hesitated to take life, curtail liberty and expropriate property so that, like "global warming", socialism got a bad name.

Now socialism can happily be implied within the label "liberal", forcing those who wish to proclaim the virtues of liberalism as it was originally known to describe it as "classical liberalism", and immunising those of Socialist bent from the unpleasant and counter-productive task of trying to justify the real meaning and implications of the political order they espouse.

The terms "capitalist" and "capitalism" have also been poisoned. But in a different way. Whereas avoiding the bad names attached to "global warming" and "socialism" have motivated attempts to avoid the stigma attached to them, with capitalist and capitalism the opposite is done — the opponents of capitalism who are almost always supporters of socialism try to give "capitalist" and "capitalism" a bad name. They characterise as capitalist or caused by capitalism situations which have arisen not from exercise of the rights to life, liberty and property (which are the fundamental ingredients of capitalism), but are circumstances which actually are the consequence directly or indirectly of government action.

The misuse of language involved with capitalism is a large subject which requires separate treatment.

Most of Hayek's Chapter 7 is devoted to what he calls the confused concept of 'Society' and the "Weasel Word 'Social' ", in particular the latter. Of it he states that it "has probably become the most confusing expression in our entire moral and political vocabulary". After noting that the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977) provides a series of no less than thirty-five combinations of 'social' with some noun or other he set about listing examples which cropped up in his day-to-day work. The list he produced was of over 160 nouns qualified by the adjective 'social'. That was in 1988. When I read the list I could see that there are a number more. For example "social policy" is not in Hayek's list but it is a subject being taught at Victoria University and no doubt elsewhere. What it actually means is anyone's guess which is no doubt a large problem for both students and teachers.

In "socialisation" of the means of production, distribution and exchange, use of socialisation implies that once these means have been 'socialised' they belong to the whole of 'society'. That sounds much better than saying that they are expropriated by the government but that is the reality. Within 'Society' in a system of socialism nobody other than the government or its agents has the ability to exercise ownership or control because it is only the government which has the power of coercion. It is only the government which has the power to pass laws and to enforce them by interfering with the property and/or liberty of individual people.

Those are just some examples of our poisoned language. There is a plethora within the area of what we call political correctness.

Should we be concerned about this misuse of language? Yes, we should. It is a means to lead a population which is generally freedom-loving to unwittingly support political actions which more and more deprive them of their freedom. This is the meaning of the quote from Confucius.

Gary Judd QC is a Queen's Counsel, former Chairman of ASB and Ports of Auckland and former member APEC Business Advisory Council.


Mike Butler said...

Excellent article on how language is subverted to gain political benefits.

The treaty industry is full of such subversion to create the impression that claimants are hard done by.

For instance, land sales are reinvented as "land loss", land is "returned" when the correct term is "given".

The cash and assets given to claimants is called "financial redress", giving the impression that a misdeed is being remedied.

However, a close look at the history presented in tribunal reports shows that any alleged misdeeds have been conjured up by further redefinition of terms.

The most obvious of these is the so-called "loss of rangatiratanga", which the tribunal says requires compensation.

However, a comparison of the English and Maori texts of the treaty shows that "rangatiratanga" translates the word "possession".

The Treaty of Waitangi has been redefined as a partnership agreement when there is nothing like partnership anywhere in the treaty.

Robt Mann said...

Gary Judd has the bald-faced effrontery to state

` the means of exchange (money) has been completely nationalised. The government has a monopoly on the issue of money

But Gary Judd QC is a former Chairman of ASB and Ports of Auckland and former member APEC Business Advisory Council. He cannot be unaware that about 19/20ths of the money issued by banks like his ASB is not issued by the govt.

Anonymous said...

The term "poisoned language" is in itself an example of what it is criticising in that it takes a critical point of view on what is a normal feature of the ever changing usage of words. Word meanings are dynamic,fluid things and what was "gay" yesterday means something entirely different today. What we have to guard against is being manipulated by not realising words have been employed by authorities to gain their ends covertly. The Treaty industry is full of such exploitation.

Dianna said...

You are so right Mike. I also thoroughly enjoy reading your articles as well as many of the authors on this site.

Some of the poisoned language that emerged in the seventies really grates on me and it was developed to deconstruct the moral code of the day. Words like tolerance. We were continually being coerced into accepting social practices that were detrimental to civil society and have proved overtime to be disastrous. Another socialist mantra of that time and continuing today, is the exhortation to not be judgemental. It is essential, if we are to maintain sanity and order that we make judgements of everything everyday. If we do not, then we become a miasmic social mush. As a society we have been subjected to vehement abuse by those who find themselves to be societal misfits and it continues today with ever greater extremism and is picked up quickly by new immigrants to advance whatever self promoting hideous cause they are pursuing. I have just read a headline from Australia proclaiming that a Muslim organisation in Adelaide has successfully caused the cessation of another group from singing the Australian National Anthem.