Our PM has acquired a reputation—or rather reputations—overseas, largely sympathetic and supportive. Her choice of words sometimes gives cause for concern though and has recently earned her a bit of a reputation as the “Don’t talk to your neighbour” PM. Whether extreme speech or just tough love, time will tell, but if your neighbour is fifteen or twenty feet away, then really? you shouldn’t greet them, or talk to them? Or is that not what she meant?
Twenty-three years ago, I wrote a little book entitled Mind Control, the result of a thesis on the subject of cults. It described a suite of ten practices characteristic of cult groups, including the use of fear and intimidation, relationship control, information control, reporting structures, and loaded language. If just some of the practices were present, then it could be called a group with cultic features. If most or all were present, then it was a full-blown cult. In passing I made some parallels with several places around the world, known to all, where it happens on a national scale. I also looked at how, if ex-cultists don’t resolve issues related to those practices, they run the risk of perpetuating them in other contexts.
Now by ‘loaded language’, I mean the use of certain catch words and phrases, coined or given new meanings suited to the cult, and recruited at a moment’s notice for manipulating, pigeon-holing, labelling, and accusing.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of teaching, along with other subjects, English to non-native speakers. Of necessity this involves making much of a text, making a fuss over certain words, how they are used and in what context—something I enjoy delving into with students because the use of language is at the heart of everything. Its misuse is all around us too, and none of us is completely innocent in that regard, but the overt (or covert) misuse of words in certain circles is worrying. It could be insidious “Newspeak” in politics and media, or just in-your-face “f… you” type language which we occasionally encounter in life, and which when mixed with aggression and violent intent is undoubtedly hate speech. Of course, sometimes people just let their feelings get the better of them and soon after regret or forget it, and it’s tolerated—or not—accordingly.
That connects with another issue, related to the submissions just prior to lockdown for the proposed new laws on hate speech, namely, what exactly is meant by free speech. The freedom to be frank, to tell it like it is, is obviously an essential part of it. Being at or near the forefront of our other freedoms, free speech is also a respectfully challenging, constructively confrontational, and thought-provoking means of forcing issues out into the open where they can be debated if need be and subsequently dealt with. Hence, it’s useful and beneficial. Part of it is making sure things are put into perspective early on because recognising how words are defined, packaged and delivered helps prevent descent into that other area, damaging—or cultic—language and behaviours.
I often explain to my students that every word is a world and it is their job to explore it. One student came to me recently during a unit of teaching on medicine, firmly convinced that the word ‘surgeon’ meant only someone who treats skin and nothing else; there could be no other meaning. I asked him whether he had a dictionary at home or on his phone and the response was in the negative. His idea came from a misinterpretation of a Google definition, which just required more unpacking, explanation, and a longer, less superficial search. We all make similar mistakes in our own language, let alone a second or third one, which is why clarifying meanings helps avoid misunderstandings.
Language changes both naturally and by design. The word ‘discriminate’, for instance, originally had a different meaning than given today. Derived from roots similar to ‘discernment’ and ‘discretion’, it was all about having the liberty or power to make a sound judgement. Even a few decades ago that would have been the first thought on hearing the word. But over time (apparently from about 1866, in American English), it acquired a secondary meaning relating to how people can “make invidious distinctions prejudicial to a class of persons” (Online Etymology Dictionary).
Another example is ‘hate’, an emotion. This word is now in transition too, and so any changes—proposed conversions of meaning—deserve to come under scrutiny. Emotions like hate can change within minutes, hours, or days and what initially appears to be a strong emotion could simply be a passing moment of disgruntlement. If something negative becomes entrenched then problems arise and naturally individuals and groups can be incited against other groups to the point where their views become unhealthily ingrained; but hate itself, like romantic love, is on a continuum of emotion, and emotions are fluid. And you can’t legislate for love, so how can you legislate against hate? Current legislation is actually sufficient in my opinion and playing with language to make it vaguer while all the while talking about making it clearer is probably not going to work. “Ideas inimical to Ingsoc [English Socialism] could only be entertained in a vague, wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so.” (Orwell again. p. 316.) And defining groups which themselves have a certain amount of fluidity is problematic (as can be the challenges with defining a cult). It may take time—or perhaps never—for a group to get settled into their “identity”.
So, some changes are the result of the natural evolution of a language, whether desirable or not, and others are deliberate tinkering.
Loaded language, however, used in ideological or political jargon potentially designed to control, always needs to be challenged because it has the capacity to undermine freedom and progress. I mentioned some of the practices common to cults (by which I refer to any cult, not just religious ones) and how even one or two of those practices in a group may be cause for concern. In a fully-fledged cult, members under such controls and coerced into yielding their basic freedoms soon find that those freedoms are only ever returned to them in part, if at all, and with conditions attached, conditions which over time can become unsustainable or unbearable. The key is obviously not to lose or give up the freedoms in the first place.
So, it’s healthy for every organisation to look at itself objectively at times and adjust things where needed if it becomes aware that it’s going down the wrong road.
If we’re all in a “team of five million”, while teams have their in-group jargon too, they should never become like what I’ve referred to here. But it’s happened numerous times in history and all of those ten cult practices are now being used in certain regions of the world. And I doubt that, at the beginning of those regimes, people would have ever thought things would go the way they did.