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The power of words

Remember the nonsense we were told when we were younger – Sticks and stones might break my bones, but names will never hurt me? Words hurt all the time. Of course, they can also soothe, comfort and inform, but they certainly have real power. Otherwise we would not have courses on better communication, would not get angry at poorly worded e-mails (hmmm, or blogs – I hope not), and there would be little point in literature. Words arouse emotions. And of course, they can be used for evil or for good.

Only last week, we had a number of headlines in British newspapers following a legal ruling. I think it’s fair to say that most court cases are of interest only to the parties involved, and normally we are oblivious to their existence, never mind the outcome. This one was different. I am not going to get into the case itself, but one headline in particular caught a lot of people’s attention.

The Daily Mail called the three judges involved “Enemies of the people” (all capitalised, of course) and has been widely, but not universally, criticised for doing so. One senior bishop, Nick Baines, said that “The last time we saw things like the photographs of judges on the front pages of a newspaper described as enemies of the people is in places like Nazi Germany, in Zimbabwe and places like that.”


Photo: The Independent

There is now a new rule that any argument on the internet will end up with an accusation of the other party being a Nazi, and labels like that and fascist are thrown about too much.


My immediate reaction on seeing the headline was exactly that parallel. The word which came to me was the German equivalent of “enemy of the people”, Volksverräter, a word used in Nazi Germany to describe essentially anyone in opposition to the Nazi state, including anyone who had sympathies with Jews. So when I saw this headline, I saw a British newspaper using the English language equivalent of a term used most prominently by the Nazis (and now being used again in right-wing movements in Germany).

And surprise, surprise, Nigel Farage intends to march with 100,000 like-minded souls to the court when the Supreme Court delivers its judgement on the government’s appeal. So now we have the threat of mobs descending upon our courts whenever a right-wing politician does not like the possible outcome. I’ve seen that before as well.

Fascism did not start with mass rallies in Nuremberg. It started quietly without anyone noticing. It fed on hatred of others, rather like the Daily Express’s barrage of demonising “migrants.”

Fascist leaders knowingly lied, rather like a significant proportion of politicians in the UK’s referendum campaign. And it hid behind a facade until it was too late.

Judges were not independent of the Nazi state. They were a part of it. I am thrown back in time when I hear a Conservative Party grandee say “Judges are out of their boxes these days and need to be put back in.” (Norman Tebbit, if you were wondering). And I thought we were proud of having an independent, qualified and experienced judiciary. (I still am, for the record.)

So how might fascism start in this day and age?

Perhaps with a man who likes to be photographed with a pint in his hand as he pretends to have anything in common with the people just beginning to feel the consequence of a collapse in his country’s currency while he stands on the sidelines making veiled threats against anyone who disagrees with him.

The leaders of the far-right parties in the UK, Germany, Austria and a certain individual in the US seem to share a worrying number of (negative) similarities, including some or all of those below. I would not be surprised if their counterparts in France and other countries showed similar traits.

  • They lie and lie and lie and simply do not care.
  • They allege that elections they think they will lose are rigged against them.
  • They have a clear view that (some) foreigners are the problem and less of them is the solution.
  • They claim to speak for “the people.”
  • Threats of violence are usually worded in such a way that they do not – quite – constitute a criminal offence, but the audience knows what they mean.

But there are alternatives. At its most basic, imagine what the world would be like if, instead of looking to far-right politicians for solutions which are no solutions, we simply treated others (or just tried to treat others) as we would like them to treat us? The behaviours we are seeing from these politicians would stop. Nobody wants to be lied to or threatened. There are plenty good principles out there, coming from many different sources, which can transcend politics, centuries and countries, and – I hope – enough good people who will oppose the evil being dressed up and sold to us at the moment. Because we all know what can happen if we do not.

In the meantime, maybe don’t buy these newspapers. There are others which still have principles and a sense of professional ethics.

And it gets worse

I’m planning on a trivial blog next week. I hope.  But not this week. This week I am hopping mad and sometimes just writing about it helps.

Here’s my scenario for you. You need to buy a car. The ticket price is £1,000, but you are a good haggler (I’m not) and you get the price down to £900. You go home and tell your family. What do you say the car cost? £1,000 or £900? You might say, I did really well, it would have cost £1,000, but I got it for £900. But it didn’t cost you £1,000, so why would you say it did? This is not difficult. It is a matter of facts.

Last week, I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and how she used her immense talent to promote the evils of Nazism and the persona of Hitler. I’m escalating it this week. And, like last week, this is not about politics, this is about truth versus lies. And yes, I’m going to be as black and white as that.

So, Joseph Goebbels. Minister for Propaganda and an absolute zealot when it came to Hitler and National Socialism. And a man of many contradictions. He had no hesitation in telling the German people what he wanted to be true, even when he knew it was false, if it served his aims. And from him we have the playbook of how to lie on a grand scale:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

In the current excuse for a debate about Britain’s future membership of the European Union, the Vote Leave campaign has been hammering home one figure and associated concept time and time again. This is how they word it in their campaign literature:

“The EU costs us over £350 million a week.

“We are still sending £350 million a week to the EU.

“We will keep sending at least £350 million a week abroad.

“Permanent handing over of £350 million a week to Brussels.”

Got that? Four times in one document (five, if you count the time they tell us we would stop paying that much if we left the EU).

It is a lie, pure and simple. A lie that follows the Goebbels playbook of making sure it’s big and keeping repeating it, even when you have been told (as if you didn’t already know) that it’s not true. Remember the car? We are being told, again and again, that the car cost £1,000. It didn’t. It cost £900. And it’s not even that the car cost £1,000 with some cash back later on. It only ever cost £900 (and, in the case of the EU, you then got a large proportion of that £900 back in grants and other money to spend on your home or garden, but at some point the analogy breaks down).

Does it matter? Morally, I think unequivocally yes, it matters. We are asked to place a degree of trust in politicians. Our system of democracy (stop laughing in the back) grants them the authority to make significant decisions on our behalf. And yet some of them, including cabinet ministers and wannabe next prime ministers, wilfully lie to us when it serves their purposes. In my opinion, lying to the electorate does nothing to serve democracy, nothing to further a meaningful debate, and it will have a lasting impact of reducing further what trust we do still have in politicians. I will be honest, I am keeping a mental list of the politicians who continue knowingly to peddle this lie. I will never be able to trust any of them in the future, knowing that they have no scruples about lying to me about something as straightforward as this – and defending the lie when challenged.

I’m not alone in being more than a little troubled by the promulgation of non-facts in this campaign. Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, summarised his committee’s report by saying

Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as “facts”.

And on the £350m figure, the committee was incredibly clear:

Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.

What a very British way of saying “They are lying to you”. Now, Vote Leave are not alone in talking factual nonsense in this referendum campaign. Theirs is just, in my opinion, the best (that should probably be “worst”) example of a lie on such a scale which is being told in what we like to think is a more enlightened age than 1930s and 40s Germany was. But people haven’t changed. Some still lie to us, abusing their position for their personal aims and ideology, and some of us will always believe it, particularly when it plays to our existing views. Confirmation bias, anyone?

While I’m on my soapbox, here’s another parallel with German history that worries me, this time from my home patch of media ethics. When politicians are up to no good, we have the media to hold them to account, to challenge them, to ask the questions we cannot individually. Jump forward a few years from the 1940s to East Germany. The media are under effective state control, the flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland is required reading (or at least subscription) for Party members. And it was unashamed in calling itself “Organ of the Socialist Unity Party” (the ruling party – and at this point, let me just say that the Party and country were not socialist, they were parts of a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship that was socialist in name only). I will give them this – they were honest about their allegiances. I think the Daily Telegraph should be equally honest and include in its masthead “Organ of the Vote Leave campaign” given the incredibly biased coverage of the campaign over recent weeks. I rather hope that, one day, someone will do what I did with East German journalists and ask some of the Telegraph journalists some difficult questions about their concept of media ethics and how their professed values could be considered consistent with what they wrote – and did not write. I would buy that book.

The amorality of language

Lena Riefenstahl is perhaps a poster child for immense talent put to a terrible use. The films she directed changed the way propaganda was delivered and some of the techniques she developed are still used today in film-making, advertising and documentaries. But originally they were put to use to make propaganda films for the Nazi regime. What she did with her skills does not lessen her abilities, but nor does it excuse how she applied them.

The problem with talent is that it need have nothing to do with morality. Morally good people (let’s not get into what that means for now) can be inept, and people who swim in moral sewers brilliant.

Writers are no exception to this rule, of course. And fortunately most of the time, the contrast is not as extreme, but good writing techniques can still be used for a multitude of purposes.

This struck home recently when the front page of the Daily Telegraph jumped out at me. The app version looked like this:


I recognised three things at the same time. One, the headline was misleading. Two, it read more like how a fiction writer would have written it (is it a metaphor or a simile, I can never remember the difference?), and three the name of the person who wrote the article.

Let’s start with the author. I came across Allison Pearson years ago at a literary event. It was one of the corporate ones and I was one of two males in a large room in a hotel near the office. I always seem to get invited to the rugby. I don’t want to go to the rugby, I want to go book-based events. I only got to go to this one because the person who was supposed to be invited couldn’t go at the last minute. The other author there was Mary Horlock, who had written a book set in Jersey which I subsequently bought (and enjoyed). On the day I was conscious of how quickly we form an opinion about someone, based both on what we notice and on what we don’t notice but what our subconscious processes for us. I came away not wanting to read Allison Pearson’s books, which is almost certainly totally unfair, but there we are. I can’t read everything and whether I warm to an author in person or not is a filter at my disposal. It’s like the cover that plays such a role in which novels we buy. It’s not logical, the cover does not tell you whether you will like the book, and yet I still find myself buying a book because the picture on the front tells me a story. It might not be the story inside the book, but by then it’s too late and I’m hooked.

So, the article in the Telegraph. As I said, it employed loads of fiction’s tricks. The Grand Canyon metaphor – much more memorable than saying “the numbers aren’t consistent”. Then taking the abstract concept of migration and turning that into the story of the fictional Piotr who comes for a few months, then ends up staying, bringing his wife and children and so on. It’s what works in fiction, humanising an issue, bringing it down to a single individual’s experience. In this case, it makes the article very readable, creating a concern about what might be going on with the Piotrs of the world. And of course, it’s much worse than that according to the article. We have the picture of pregnant women being turned away from maternity units. Well written, though: the husband who “has to drive 35 miles, with his wife groaning like a stricken moose”. And then we have children with bursting appendices unable to find a hospital bed, always good for reaching our most basic sympathies.

Except that it’s not that accurate. Great story, pity about the facts. If you are interested in the basis of the counter-arguments about the facts, you can find a good summary here: http://infacts.org/telegraph-grossly-distorts-migrant-figures/

You can get off with the facts being out in a novel, as long as they aren’t facts that matter to the story. You can’t (or shouldn’t be able to) in non-fiction, especially not if you are using them to support an argument for or against something.

My point here, though, is less about the facts – though they matter – and more about the way in which good writing can be used for any purpose. It is oblivious to morality, which is something where we have to bring our own sense of right and wrong into the equation. Personally I found this article horrendous for its unsubstantiated allegations, but others might well feel the points being made justify a less measured use of language. At the end of the day, language is just one of the tools at our disposal. How we use it it up to us.