The Butchers Bill (of words)

By George Carter

This is a cross-post from the author’s own blog, reproduced with kind permission.

There’s always some trepidation that comes with writing an essay on language. There is an immediate expectation on the part of the reader for their correspondent to be, if not highfalutin then at least competent. My aim is not to produce a grammatical masterpiece, although I attempt, of course to uphold standards. My purpose runs deeper than that, to consider the debasement of the intrinsic value of words. Namely, their meaning.

I’m not the first to point out our descent in to meaninglessness. Our adoption of gibberish and jargon into the lexicon has been a constant source of antagonism since the Norman Conquest. It was brought to its near apogee in the era of George Orwell and the great man, in his — and here I daresay he would throttle me — immortal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, duly eviscerates it. Note this extract from Professor Lancelot Hogben:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collactions of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Orwell’s criticism “quite apart from avoidable ugliness” was that sentences and paragraphs so constructed fall afoul of the greatest crime of language, that of a “staleness of imagery”. This leads — so he believed and I concur — to a “lack of precision” where “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not”.

This literary trap no doubt still captures many amongst our lettered classes, but our current problem is far more severe. We have the destroyed the meaning of words altogether. Take awesome, adj; causing feelings of great admiration, respect, or fear. And my own note for emphasis; Awe-some, to feel in awe. Awe was reserved for moments of transcendence, of divine inspiration, a word denoting our connection with the numinous infinity of our being. Now you can walk down any street of the cultural metropolis of London and have awesome being used to describe such trivialities as a new pair of Nike high tops, or Rhianna’s latest chart hit.

It is true that words naturally change meaning over time, ‘optimism’ has cheerfully made its way from Voltaire’s original and ‘need’ these days more often denotes want. People have always abused, evolved, and divined new meaning from words and this isn’t a call for the strictures of an Academie Anglais. Not only do I think it would be a futile endeavour, I can’t help but think our language would be poorer for it, after all Moliere, for all his eclat is not Shakespeare. It is however a call to reverse our trend of linguistic nihilism. The butchers bill is much longer than awesome. Outraged, appalled, shocked, disgusted, all and more have lost their ability to apply real meaning in their use. This is a tragedy. A tragedy that prevents us from plumbing the full depths of the human condition. Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes language as a window into human nature. As that window becomes narrower our rich, inner world becomes that much poorer. The 21st century with its trigger warnings and safe spaces is eating at our ability to feel alive in all its beauty. So much so that when we feel afraid — as is natural in a species still to lose its fear of the night — we can find solace in the words that allow us to express our condition to our fellow travellers. In so doing we can attain what little comfort and grace is due to us in the time we have on this strange journey of life.

No wonder the extent of our vocabulary is linked to everything from educational attainment and social standing, through to cognitive development and your chances of suffering from depression. Our ability to explain our inner world and to open the window that allows us to express this onto the world of things is ultimately limited by our ability to effectively communicate that world in words. Is it any surprise that we have generations failing to achieve any sort of attainment in any field of value. Generations hooked on vacuous ‘reality’ television and alarmingly adulterated narcotics. No wonder we see people falling under the thrall of false prophets, Donald Trump is just the logical outcome of this destruction of any ability to explain. An absurdity wholly appropriate to absurd times. In a world where at the click of a button people can meet anyone else in the world but lack the words to say anything meaningful to them. A world where a post on a virtual wall is a substitute for in person greetings and texting has replaced the art of the heartfelt letter between lovers. Contrast Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Christmas love letter to Nancy where he describes the women in his life and ends “fortunately all these women are you — fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you… How do I love thee — let me count the ways? For there is no way to count. For I love the whole gang of you” reduced in modern vernacular to “u r fit”, or else equally banal.

The apoplexy of the Bernie people to Trumps victory is the other side of the same coin. Call everyone a racist and you remove the meaning of the word. No longer is it the stupidity of Jim Crow or the bravery of Dr King, let alone the insanity of Mengler and the horrors of Auschwitz. Treblinka. Belzec. Sobibor. Chelmno. Majdanek. I feel impelled to list them all. To impregnate some meaning into what they represent. When we destroy them, words become useless at denoting anything in reality. Only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust. What does it do when two-thirds either don’t believe it or think it’s exaggerated? If genocide has lost all meaning what does that brood for future generations?

In Jean Hatzfeld’s painfully documented narrative driven from the side of the genocidaires in Rwanda, the killers are acutely aware of the power of words refusing to even mention genocide when spoken to in the French informal personal ’tu’ and only opening up in the broader more formal ‘vous’ even then preferring instead to refer to it as ‘the cuttings’ in the full knowledge of the shame of what genocide means in relation to their crimes. We risk much in the debasement of the language, as much in our shame as in our triumphs. It is through, and only through language, that we can comprehend. And in comprehending come to terms with, what Rilke so beautifully illumed as “that unique, not repeatable being which at every turn of our life we are”.

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Bouattia, the Yazidis and Daesh

By Jake Wilde

When is a motion condemning Daesh not a motion condemning Daesh? When it is dismantled and rendered free of the original meaning.

Back in September 2014 the following motion was proposed at an NEC meeting of the National Union of Students:

Iraqi/Kurdish solidarity

Proposed: Daniel Cooper
Seconded: Shreya Paudel, Clifford Fleming

NUS National Executive Committee notes:

  1. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and sectarian polarisation in Iraq – which has resulted in thousands of Yazidi Kurds being massacred.

NUS NEC believes

  1. That the people of Iraq have suffered for years under the sectarian and brutally repressive dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the US/UK invasion and occupation, the current sectarian regime linked to both the US and Iran, and now the barbaric repression of the “Islamic State” organisation.
  2. That rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons against women in IS-occupied areas, while minorities are being ethnically cleansed.

NUS NEC resolves

  1. To work with the International Students’ Campaign to support Iraqi, Syrian and other international students in the UK affected by this situation.
  2. To campaign in solidarity with the Iraqi people and in particular support the hard-pressed student, workers’ and women’s organisations against all the competing nationalist and religious-right forces.
  3. To support Iraqis trying to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide to fight for equality and democracy, including defence of the rights of the Christian and Yazidi-Kurd minorities.
  4. To condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention.
  5. Encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers.
  6. To make contact with Iraqi and Kurdish organisations, in Iraq and in the UK, in order to build solidarity and to support refugees.
  7. To issue a statement on the above basis.

 

Malia Bouattia, then Black Students’ officer, led the opposition to this motion, saying:

“We recognise that condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.

“This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend.”

The NEC agreed to defer the motion to the next meeting in December 2014. They were forced to issue a statement because of the negative publicity generated by the decision not to pass the motion.

 

Here’s the motion Malia Bouattia brought back:

Motion 5: Kurdish Solidarity

Proposed by: Malia Bouattia

Seconded by: Zekarias Negussue, Toni Pearce, Abdi-Aziz Suleiman, Zarah Sultana, Piers Telemacque, Vonnie Sandlan, Gordon Maloney, Kirsty Haigh, Sai Englert, Colum McGuire, Megan Dunn, Raechel Mattey

NEC Believes:

  1. The Kurdish people have been fighting for freedom and democracy throughout the course of history and are amongst the largest stateless groups in the world.
  2. They have experienced mass genocides committed by surrounding states, followed by mass displacement and millions of refugees.
  3. There is a new democratic structure in the 3 cantons of Rojava which has been set up by the people of the region and enacts women’s rights as well as other forms of social justice for all those oppressed.
  4. Kurdish women have played a key role by co-leading the resistance in the region, with non patriarchal and anti-sexist methods which has also been the case throughout history.
  5. The Kurdish people in Kobane are restricted in healthcare, food and clothing.
  6. The Kurdish struggle aims to protect co-existence between the different ethnic and religious groups.

NEC Further Believes:

  1. That all peoples have the right to self-determination.
  2. Rojava is entitled to its independent political establishment which is inclusive of all the communities within the region.
  3. That the Kurdish struggle should be recognised and supported by the international community.
  4. That the Kurdish people should lead in defining their freedom and making demands of solidarity.
  5. That kidnapping sexual abuse and trafficking of Kurdish women and children are crimes against humanity.
  6. That ISIS should be condemned for its atrocities, against the Kurdish people and all others who have been affected.
  7. That aid should not be prevented from reaching the Kurdish people.
  8. Provisions should be put in place to cater for the people in the Kurdish region, namely Rojava, Shingal, Mosul and Sinjar.

NEC Resolves:

  1. That Kurdish emancipation will neither be obtained through groups like ISIS nor imperialist endeavours.
  2. To meet with and support the UK Kurdish groups and community’s solidarity efforts and the international Kurdish diaspora’s.
  3. To call on the international community to recognise the Kurdish resistance.
  4. To support the international movement to find and bring back all the Kurdish people who have been captured by ISIS.
  5. To raise awareness about the situation and support Kurdish societies within Students’ Unions to show solidarity.
  6. To pressure the UK government to meet the needs of the Kurdish community in the UK and within the region.
  7. For relevant officers to campaign to support the Kurdish struggle.
  8. To condemn the atrocities committed by ISIS and any other complicit forces.
  9. To call on the UK government to meet the needs of refugees from the region.
  10. To support women’s organizations which help young girls and women who have been abducted and trafficked.

 

It is not difficult to spot the glaring difference. It is hard to imagine how it is possible to ignore the religious aspect of Daesh’s murderous campaign against the Yazidis but Bouattia decided to do so. Rather than condemn Daesh as, for example, nothing to do with Islam, she chose to ignore the religious basis entirely.

That is the reason why the movement to disaffiliate from the NUS is picking up pace.

That is the reason why, at last night’s debate in Cambridge University Student Union on disaffiliation from the NUS, Oriyan Prizant (@oprizant) condemned Bouattia for indicating that “Yazidis are not human enough to merit human rights.”

It is a strong accusation. And it is fully justifiable.

If I Had a Hammer…

by David Paxton (@CanYouFlyBobby)

In case you were unaware, there is currently a theocratic, fascistic, paramilitary force operating in North-West Iraq. In recent days the object of these gentlemen’s endeavours has been to capture, rape, convert, starve or murder an entire religious group. i.e. genocide. And by any proper definition of the word ‘genocide’.  Not like some Spanish actor opining about Israeli operations in Gaza. Actual, scary, nasty, full-blown, hairy-arsed genocide.  The sort we are supposed to have an international and internationalist obligation to prevent.

The group’s propaganda often consists of videos of hacking off heads followed by hi-def  stills of these heads imaginatively arrayed. Other highlights include videos of driving alongside cars and unloading AK 47s into the driver and passengers, pulling over and finishing up at close range. If these are unavailable then shootings of prone prisoners in mass graves often have to do.

They indoctrinate children with the desire to join the ‘jihad’ and ‘kill infidels’ and ‘apostates’. They do this in a clear state of religious exultation, with hearty songs and full cries available on the accompanying audio. Sometimes they can be reduced to tears by the sheer joy and passion of their work.

Last night Owen Jones, the Orwell of Our Generation™, explained why dropping a bomb on such people, in the course of their genocide, is a bad idea. It is a bad idea because it will “fuel them”.

I know, I know, how much more fuel could they require? How much more commitment could they possibly muster? Or even withstand?

But perhaps, to give him the benefit of the doubt, he means ‘fuel’ in the sense of recruitment. That their ranks would swell.

The recruits already come from all over, if they are not Syrian and other Middle Easterners they are from North Africa and the European, Antipodean and American Muslim Diasporas. There is little indication that they are relying on fresh Iraqi Sunnis to survive. So can this really be what ‘fuels’ means? I doubt it. I doubt he knows.

He also said, “the key issue with ISIS is Sunni resentment towards a sectarian government”. Although they currently fight several governments we can surely assume that the government in question, in the fight in Iraq, is the Iraqi one (this government’s existence is clearly the fault of the neoliberal US/West, if this helps understand the choice at all). If one cares to listen to these people they clearly state their aim is to resurrect the Caliphate. And they would now argue that they have achieved this. Such an ambition has previously been expressed by several groups, long before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office. So is it fair to attach such parochial motivation to this internationally recruited group especially when it contradicts their own proclamations? Could it simply be that this motivation would be the one for which the US are most culpable?

As said, this is a genocide going on right now. For the Yazidi the situation is utterly urgent. Hence emergency food and water being dropped on their desolate mountain hideaway as I write. I asked Jones what best case time-frame could be expected to achieve this soothing of Sunni resentment. I received no answer, but contrasting the urgency of the Yazidi situation with any possible answer, we surely arrive at the conclusion that to address ‘Sunni resentment with a sectarian government’ at the exclusion of confronting the combatants, we would be allowing genocide. Accepting genocide. Standing aside in the face of genocide.

This is a severe accusation to be sure. However, today when the US is about the only significant force that actually has a chance of stopping the onslaught, and the worst possible blowback is to ‘fuel’ the responsible group mid-genocide, are we not compelled to make the accusation?

The paucity of logic in the point of view Jones provides, combined with the implications of its outcomes, raises the following question: At what point is it fair to consider this merely the contortions of somebody who simply cannot, under any circumstances, accept the notion that the vast power of the US military can possibly be used in a positive way? That any action by the US is inherently bad. That any actions by local actors are merely the consequences of the only actor ascribed any agency. As David Aaronovitch said in his exchange with him, “it’s a view”. But it’s a view that is simply not morally serious.

This is ad hominem, but the argument under examination doesn’t hold up to any logical justification. When an intelligent person forwards such an argument what other avenue is left but the ad hominem?

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And unfortunately it seems Owen Jones merely has anti-Americanism as a basis for any thinking about international affairs. Surely a terrible vanity and conceit when so many are faced with such an urgent catastrophe.

Now to a large extent the above is a statement of the obvious. So perhaps not worth the effort. Except Owen Jones is a man of influence. An unserious voice seriously listened to by a great many. Particularly by the young, a young with voting power. His views are very far from an anomaly. If the arguments expressed last night are indeed from the Orwell of Our Generation™, well, then this is very bad. In the pretentious words of a snooty Chicago maître’d, I weep for the future.