Monday, 11 November 2013

What's in a name? Everything, apparently. Why I will not call VLAD an ‘anti-bikie law’

When I was a teacher, I always stressed how important it was to understand the ways language can be used, and the power that a skilled user of language can wield. I often started with that passage about Newspeak from George Orwell's 1984. Syme tells Winston that “the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.”

The idea is that if you have no word for ‘rebellion’, it’s a bit hard to talk about it or foment it - or even to imagine it. He who controls language can therefore control thought – and behaviour. Language is powerful.

Politicians evidently understand Orwell only too well. 

Scott Morrison, Australia’s new federal Immigration Minister, clearly understands that by changing the name of something, you can change the way it is perceived. Not for him Shakespeare’s wisdom: 
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.      (Romeo & Juliet Act II sc.ii) 
Mr Morrison’s linguistic practice is more Orwellian. Staff in his department were recently instructed to change the label given to asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. They are no longer ‘asylum seekers’ – they are ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. They have been dehumanised and transmogrified. Now they sound rather nasty and criminal, deserving of contempt, not compassion. Sneaky move, Mr Morrison - but you don't fool me with your wordplay.

Warwick McFadyen, a senior writer with the Age, put it beautifully in this article: ‘Say a phrase often enough and it attains a patina of truth’, he says.

That is why I will not now and not ever call Campbell Newman’s VLAD ‘anti-bikie law’. The media does us no favours by consistently calling VLAD ‘anti-bikie law’. It's dishonest. It's shamelessly misrepresenting something reprehensible as something desirable, and using the general public's antipathy towards 'outlaw' bikies to get support for an oppressive law. 

‘About time somebody stood up to those scumbag bikies’.
‘I’m not a bikie so I’m ok.’
‘If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.’

The dishonest labelling and marketing of VLAD as ‘anti-bikie law’ encourages public support for a law which actually has very little to do with bikies and everything to do with a power-crazy government wielding a sledgehammer, clumsily smoke-screened by the 'anti-bikie' tag – and besides, motorcyclists are a convenient target at the moment. 

VLAD is ultimately oppressive, and a potential weapon against ANY organisation that the government doesn’t particularly like. Today, bikies; tomorrow, soccer clubs/greenies/unionists or whoever happens to be on the Hit List du jour.

 ‘Anti-bikie law’ as a synonym for VLAD is a disgraceful and frightening example of linguistic legerdemain, and I will not have it in my vocabulary.


Trobairitz said...

Reminds me of another bit of literature that could be changed for what you are experiencing:

"First they came for the Bikies, and I did not speak out - because I wasn't a Bikie......"

Sue said...

That's a pretty appropriate sentiment! I'm feeling pretty despondent at the moment at the way governments are stomping all over us in this so-called 'free country'.

AndrewM said...

Who says this is a 'free' country? The Australian Constitution certainly doesn't. That's part of the problem.

Sue said...

Without being nitpicky, this country enjoys considerable freedoms that are denied people in many other countries, and that's what I mean by a 'free country' - the freedom to vote, the freedom to criticise those in power, freedom of movement (I need no permit to travel from my town to another), freedom of association, freedom of religion etc. I suppose these are things we have come to expect in a democracy, and when these basic freedoms are eroded by power-mad politicians I'm glad that we still have the freedom to protest. A Bill of Rights of our very own, enshrined in law, might be a nice and useful thing - currently the Qld government, in its treatment of motorcyclists, is violating several of the Human Rights set out in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law. For shame!