A Just War of Words?

I once started an undergraduate essay on the linguistic turn with a pop-cultural epigraph; ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away’. My tutor, a soft-spoken son of the Sixties whose low, melodic cadences were a cross between a late night jazz radio announcer and Dylan, the stoner rabbit from the Magic Roundabout, told me it was “wonderful polemic, but a poor contribution to academe”. I confess that this was probably the highest praise I receive during my time at university, and I am convinced to this day that the low 2.2 which the essay garnered, was, in the main, down to the misattribution of the above quote to Boyzone rather than the brothers Gibb; the folly of youth. But the thought that words, however imperfect they are, are all we have, is an important one; particularly during the time of Covid. The virus is a fact, but how it is communicated, the words we choose to use, frame it and give it meaning.

“Unprecedented” (adj.)
1. Never having happened or existing in the past
2. Having happened or existed in the past but been studiously ignored

A fatal disease, passed to humans by bats you say?

Stand up Ebola 2014-2016. Luckily for the rich world, West Africans don’t travel as much as we do to China or East Asia does to the rest of the planet. Partly because of the nature of Ebola (tl;dr: it kills too fast to travel easily) and the ease with which we could erect a cordon sanitaire around Guinea, Sierra Leone and the other states at the centre of the outbreak without needing to apply the breaks to the global economy, we have conveniently forgotten about this one. And please don’t quote the official death toll; estimates say up to 70% of cases went unreported…and this is a disease with a 40% kill-ratio.

If this is a little too exotic, then we have the 1889-1890 Flu outbreak; est. 1 million deaths worldwide, The 1918-1920 Spanish (H1N1) Flu’s 17-100million, 1957’s global H2N2 with 1+ million, 1968’s H3N2 picking off between 1-4million, 2001’s swine flu outbreak which was around 500,000. Even the winter 2017-18 US flu season merits a special mention, a particularly bad year with 80,000+ deaths in the States. A current outbreak of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently estimated to be around 250 thousand cases with 6000 deaths and counting, but y’know Africa, so no big deal? And Aids. 32million dead. And counting. I haven’t even bothered adding SARS. So this is by no means unprecedented (link).

And nor was it unforeseen. The WHO, civil servants and public health experts have been waiting for this for a while, a so-called Disease X that could rip through our interconnected world. According to Bill Clinton’s former Public Health advisor, they had even played out this scenario during this administration in the 90s. Apparently there is a playbook based on their learnings. Maybe someone could tweet it to Donald.

‘War’ (n)
1. An armed fighting between two or more countries or groups
2. A metaphor deployed by politicians to suppress dissent
See also ‘battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘beat’.

Make no mistake, this virus is not out to get you. It is not personal. SARS-Cov-2 did not wake up one day and say ‘Fuck this bat, lets go mess with those fleshy skin bags carrying those weird little mirrors all the time’. This is not a war. But it helps to remember the politics of waging war when leaders decide to clothe a crisis in it’s rhetoric. Wars have time and again been framed as moral enterprises. Battles against good and evil. World War II and the Cold War loom particularly large for a generation of leaders who are old enough to romanticise, but not old enough to remember; particularly for conservatives, the second world war looms just out of reach, a fog of ‘better days’ constantly clutched at that seems to vanish at their touch. For them Covid is a chance to have their own ‘finest hour’ and rally the nation round the status quo. No questions please, when we are battling to fulfil our manifest destiny!

But this is not a War. We cannot ‘beat’ Covid-19. We are staying at home to manage it, or rather to manage our health service and collective resources. Until there is a cure, that is all we can do. Likewise, for the individual, expecting them to ‘fight’ this is absurd. You can’t wish yourself well no more than you can think yourself 5 kilos lighter or dream yourself rich. Emily Maitliss skewers this brilliantly on her recent Newsnight opening which is possibly the best piece of journalism of this pandemic so far; “You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us”

But, a little rhetorical advice to the politicians out there; if you must use a war metaphor, do so advisidely; it may be your fault there are no guns and steel to fight these germs.

‘Social Distancing’ (n.)
1. The act of maintaining a safe distance from others in order to slow the spread of infectious disease
2. A misdirectionary phrase employed, intentionally or otherwise, to further create division and atomisation in society at large
See also ‘self-isolating’ and the creeping authoritarianism of ‘lockdown’

The strategist in me hates this phrase. Do you say your parents are socially distanced when you move to another town? Are you ‘socially close’ to the person next to you in the Tesco queue under normal circumstances? Have you felt less in love (or lust) with a partner (or lover) who was separated by mountains or oceans? No? Good. In which case we are ‘Physically Distancing’ to manage this disease. It’s an inversion of the nasty little sleight-of-hand that is ‘credit card’ (It’s not as easy to begin that death-spiral of high interest loans that starts with Visa and ends with Wonga or the Pawn shop when you’re charging that widescreen telly to your ‘Debt Card’…)

Please, to go and prove that we are not socially distanced at all, pick up the phone and tell someone that you love them.

‘All in it together’(idiom)
1. A group are drawn to each other to share a burden because of a common cause
2. A way to spread blame thinly so that it cannot be easily apportioned

Wait, I remember this one. Osbourne and Cameron. Tory Conference. 2012. Austerity.
Yes, that was the same ‘all in it together’ that decimated the NHS, cut local authority budgets, disproportionately affected the poor, leaving them more vulnerable to, for example, a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor. ‘All in it together’ is the velvet glove that is meant to make sure that no-one questions the political decision made to throttle certain parts of society in order to service the national debt. Just to make it very clear. Economic policy is a political decision. The economy serves the polis, not the other way round.

Redeployed a second time in tragedy, it seeks to depoliticise policy and leave us all holding some kind of collective can for the fallout of this disease. It inevitably steamrollers over the differing outcomes that emergency policies precipitate based on where you live, what sector you work in, the life that you were able to build in this society before Covid-19. The kind of society that we shaped; through the ballot box, the press, public sentiment and social media.

There is no question that currently, in the UK and around the world, we need to pull together to ‘Get Covid Done’ but once we have got through the worst of this, we need to ensure that clever rhetoric now doesn’t stop us asking the smart questions later.

‘Key Workers’ (n. pl.)
1. Members of the job force that are vital to a country’s economy and or society
2. Members of the job force that previously no-one realised were vital to a country’s economy and daily life

Maitliss lands this as the second blow of her opening one-two punch on Newsnight. Those who cannot or cannot be allowed to work from home are the ones who keep the jigsaw puzzles arriving from Amazon, the Trebiano from Ocado, the rubbish from blocking the view of the heath or mopping up Great Aunt Ermintrude’s piss. A lot of them are foreign or brown or poor, or all of the above. Until this kicked off, barely a thought was spared for those Dickensian jobs that keep our modern world running. Who still knows the name of their post-person? Anyone, anyone?

Until anyone close to us got ill, even the NHS was more of an abstract concept than a tangible thing, to be celebrated in surreal and nightmarish Danny Boyle set-pieces and Call the Midwife. Now suddenly comes the realisation that it isn’t some abstract performance piece, but a living breathing multi-personed organism that we were slowly killing with neglect while lyricsing its ideal. And it’s also full of diligent, hardworking and often highly skilled, foreign workers who previously felt like they were getting chased out of the country.

So clap if you must. Clap as a moment of unity. Clap so that you don’t feel so alone. Clap because otherwise the neighbours will notice. But remember who you were meant to be so grateful for when you can go back to the pub to complain about immigrants.

Words matter. Especially now.

Hamstrung by Language

I have been thinking about words recently. I have been thinking in words. Some people are visual thinkers, and I can visually sketch a conceptual, but the machines moving parts are always words. Verb-pistons heft adverbs onto a conveyor of nouns, carrying passive voices into hoppers of articles shifted by whirring cogs of participles.

I recently read an essay by Tony Judt titled If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have. Judt was a historian I read a lot at university. Lucid, intelligent and never overwrought. It is the kind of writing that I wish I could execute. ( In a vain attempt to do so I have just bought The Economist Style Guide and have been recommended by a Philosophy doctoral student The Elements of Style) His analysis of 20th century Europe was consistently engaging and I recommend picking up anything with his name on the cover if you have an excuse to do so.

What jumped out from this essay, though was the key thesis- that ‘when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express’.

Ideas are bound to the language in which they are expressed. Working on a global piece of advertising business this becomes vastly apparent. Judt was writing about English as a language losing its ability to do this, its nebulous yet incisive nature, its ability to obfuscate and elucidate. The way people express themselves is becoming ever more sledgehammer-like, when to wield a complex idea it needs to be universally held as a scalpel so that we can all understand each incision. However, when you try and take a headline for a print ad crafted to those specification and take it into another language- a different yet equally precision engineered tool, we are working to another set of nuances, completely unrelated, generated by a separate culture and built upon further by the language itself. Languages catalyse the development of their own idiosyncrasies.

So it is hard to take a double meaning for a certain phrase in English and turn it into another language. In German, there are far fewer of those subtle plays on words available. It has the smallest, yet also probably best defined vocabulary of any European language. Unsurprisingly most of their popular comedy is physical, slapstick, rather than the verbal contortionists and bleak humorists we have in the UK. As a result though, German philosophy is generally much better at making you feel less confused about life than when you started it. English Philosophers often have the opposite result….

I would draw out a difference between American and English- people divided by a common language. They are two different languages, with a divergent development. One wrung dry of much of its joy-  rich veins of irony, understatement and bleak, black humour- by puritan exiles and earnest Scandinavian settlers. It would be an overstatement to say this was a universal rule, but when you see any of this kind of comedy in the American media, it is counter-cultural rather than the engrained culture.

Language is both a prism and prison, it is how we deal with the world, but it is also the only world (or worlds for the lucky multilingual out there) that we know.

This can create problems when we try to create global campaigns. The worst become lowest common denominators- bland, idea free wallpaper. The best take a global insight and roll it out as a local brief – Toyata’s latest campaign, post auto-reversing cars debacle, the ‘My Toyota, Your Toyota’ stuff has manifested itself in two very different ways in the US and Uk, but are clearly part of the same idea, or HSBC which has made a campaign out of the same crevasses between cultures that many try to traverse.

I quoted a popular modern commentator in an essay I wrote way back at university on Foucault and the Linguistic turn and what it meant for historians. Having not read the reading list, I wrote 1200 words of polemic on why Foucault was the thin end of the wedge for history ( a view which I have subsequently withdrawn, having actually read him, and about him). My tutor gave me a low 2.2 for the essay and also the best feedback I have ever had ‘Great journalism, but a poor academic effort’ I will close with the same quote I opened that essay with.

“It’s only words, and words are are I have to take your heart away”