My core interest is in the way in which individual words and phrases are used as a weapon for both good and bad in policy and public debate. I said in part:
"The problem with words is that they have both a precise meaning and a bundle of connotations attached to that meaning. Take the word reform as an example. This means to change. But the word also carries the connotation to improve. Hence our politicians use and abuse the word to describe and attempt to sell any change they consider to be important.
Another example is friendly fire. There is nothing friendly about an artillery shell from your own side. Or collateral damage in place of civillian casualties."
To extend my argument, let me take a personal example of the deliberate use of words, one that I would classify as a good thing.
At the end of the Second World War Australia had a major aircraft industry measured by the number of planes produced. In the late forties and fifties we were (and few Australians realise this) a world space power because of our involvement in the Commonwealth and Empire Space Program. In Sydney, Hawker de Havilland employed 4,500 people in its space division. Australia had the opportunity to become a foundation member of the European Space Agency even in the face of French opposition.
Now look at what happened. The Menzies-McEwen Government - and this is the core of my criticism of that Government - had no vision of Australia as a global economic power. On one side we were an exporter of primary products, on the other we were building an industrial structure behind high tariff walls dedicated to the supply of the local market. There was no vision of Australia as an international player in either manufactures or services.
This played through in regard to aircraft and space.
On the aircraft side, the industry's role was seen solely in terms of its support for Australia's own defence needs. This was reflected in its name - it was generally called the defence aircraft industry. As aircraft became more expensive we bought fewer, so construction demand dropped. These fewer aircraft required less maintenance, so maintenance demand dropped even more. By 1983 when I became responsible for industry policy in the area, the sole policy debate was to find the best way to contract and restructure the industry to meet a diminished domestic defence need.
On the space side, our role was seen simply as support for the British space program. There was no vision of Australia as a space nation. As the British program wound back our role wound back. In so doing we lost, among other things, the opportunity to develop Woomera as a major international launch site. By 1983 employment in the Australian space "industry" had shrunk to a few hundred at best.
In 1983 as a first step in trying to turn all this round, we renamed the defence aircaft industry the aerospace industry. This simple semantic variation changed the focus of the policy debate from contraction to meet a diminished local defence need to possible expansion to meet the needs of the global aerospace market including space. Later still after my departure, the policy people started talking about the industry as the aero-components industry, a simple semantic change that actually marked the end, the failure, of the broader vision.
While I would argue that the aerospace name change was a good thing, it was a conscious use of semantics to achieve an end. Today, this has become a highly sophisticated art form. You can see this in the conversations in West Wing, for example, one of my all time favourite TV programs.
The problem is that while we are all aware of it in a general sense, we can still get caught up in it without realising it. It has in fact become quite pernicious when combined with the use of polls and focus groups to determine just what we think and, more importantly, feel. A story on Neil's blog pointed to an especially nasty NSW example of the focus group process at work, in this case involving a NSW Labour Party focus group and Opposition Leader Peter Debnam.
In another of those examples of Australia as a small world, there is a link between Peter and the aerospace story because he was involved wth the basic trainer aircraft project at the time I was talking about.
Because the process has become so pervasive and pernicious, I think that we need to shine a light on it so I was interested in examples. There is a problem here in that our responses to some of these things are influenced by our own perceptions for or against the thing being referred to. So if we support the policy, we may see nothing wrong in the words. There is a further problem in that those reporting become trapped into using the words supplied by, say, a Government.
A few examples follow:
- "three strikes and you're out". Imported into Australia from the US. Relies for its power on the linking to baseball and its rules.
- "national interest". Term commonly used by Governments to justify specific actions. Who can oppose something that is in the national interest? But is it? How do we know?
- "national standard". Relies for its power on the way the concept of quality attaches itself to standard. "We need a national standard" is presented as a self-evident justification in its own right. But is it? What do we mean by standard in this case? How is it better or worse?
- "War on Terror". Appeal to patriotism. But is it a war?
- "illegal immigrant". Who can argue against the need to keep out illegal immigrants. But what is the the dividing line between a refugee (positive connotation) and the negative illegal immigrant?
- "Detainee". Don't we mean prisoner?
- "Workchoices" as in the industrial relations legislation. Who can argue with the concept of choice?
- "Insurgent, freedom fighter, guerilla, rebel, terrorist". Each of these words has a different connotation. Use depends in part upon whether or not you support the cause. Those involved on both sides select very deliberately.
- "Body count". Number killed.
- "The Environment". This phrase has become capitalised. As in x is against the enironment. Or the environmental movement. But what is the environment?
- "The market or markets". Used as though the market was a person.
And so on.