As 2016 comes to an end, I want to present an argument which I believe follows from the year’s events. Different elements of the argument have already been touched on here in recent posts.
I must begin with language and those first words of St John’s Gospel. In the beginning was [and was always] the Word. This Christmas, as usual, Christians are celebrating the birth of the Word incarnate, the entirely vulnerable human child. Is the hope which that ritual implies still viable ? Was it ever ? It is undeniable that the capacity to form and use words is at the core of being human.
Yet we know all too well that humanity can also pervert and make nonsense of language, as it does so much else in Creation. Sometimes we speak to each other as fellow witnesses to reality and – as best we can – to truth and, through the trust thus created, make connection and community ; for in the cause and acknowledgement of our common being, language is a gift and helps us reach out, to connect, to share in revelation.
But equally, and it seems more commonly, we use language merely to manipulate, to bend people to the will of Me and Mine, mine by blood or ethnicity or cause, by commercial or political or religious or tribal interest or loyalty or enslavement. In the cause and worship of self-interest, language becomes just a means by which to obscure, distort, bewitch, defraud. Just a vehicle, a medium, for the Lie.
Inevitably, language forms part of the essence of the societies we make and how they function. And truthfulness in language is a basic requirement of any democracy, our best hope for the upholding and defending of individual rights and freedoms under law. For democracy’s survival depends absolutely on there being sufficient trust between individuals across society, and between the individual and the institutions which govern that society. For instance, what validity can democratic elections have if they are just contests between liars, deceivers, fraudsters of the word ? Just verbal street-fights between sly hooligans, meaningless, truthless, and lawless ?
Therefore, if it becomes acceptable and universal practice across society to use language merely as a tool for deception and manipulation, for sell and spin, democracy founders and fragments. Or simply crashes. Democracy crashed in 2016. The crash had been coming for quite a while. In 2016 it arrived.
One further point on language, or rather, an image for it. If we see language as an essential binding and tool of human society, and honest language an essential element of democracy, then we can fairly equate it to the more obviously material currency of money. Honest language and honest money are both elements of connection, a means and circuit of exchange. They are what we deal in and a healthy community relies on. But there is a striking difference. People caught forging money or defrauding others of money, are rightly seen as felons, enemies of society, worthy of punishment. They pay fines. They are sent to jail. The tabloids rage that they do not suffer enough, once there. But what about the politician who lies deliberately to win votes in election, or referendum ? What about the tabloid editor who bends the facts in order to win over the readership to his paper’s, or owner’s, rabid point of view ? In this era, we continue to jail as criminals people who commit felonies with money ; and yet we vote in as leaders, and respectfully interview as if honest citizens, people who keep committing far more grievous felonies with words.
Onto the next stage of my argument here. Towards the end of 2016, in the UK, we were faced with an important question : where in our contemporary democracy does Sovereignty reside ? Until a few centuries ago, it resided largely in a crowned individual, our actual sovereign, king or queen, informed – it was supposed – directly by God. But slowly our society has evolved from that simple pyramid shape, and the actual monarch became “constitutional,” our kings or queens largely symbolical and without executive power. Instead, sovereign power has been extended to the People, as represented in Parliament.
But how and from where does the “People speak” ? From which position and by what means does the People exercise the dreadful responsibility of its sovereign power ? Through its elected leaders in parliament, as constituted and accountable ? Or by referendum, millions and millions of lone answers to a yes/no question, formatted as an empty box, on a single sheet of paper, distributed by the million across the nation ? And what did the 48% mean when they put their mark against ‘Remain’ ? And what did the 52% mean when they put their mark against ‘Leave’ ? How much did any of us who voted really know about the issues involved ? “Take back control” – but of what ? And who of us will be taking it ? A lot of billionaires, racists and rabid right-wingers seem happy this Christmas.
Soon the High Court of the UK will deliver its judgement on where power and responsibility lie in this small nation on the edge of a continent. Is a close referendum result based on a simplistic Yes/No, In/Out response on a vastly complex subject, (following disgraceful, dishonest and irresponsible campaigns by both “sides”), is this truly “The Voice of the People” ? The court’s deliberations are being conducted under the menacing gaze of a phalanx of loyal employees of far right billionaires, claiming (while daily abusing) the title of “Free Press”. In doing so, they are acting yet further to threaten the fragile balances that go to make up a healthy, open, generous, inclusive and life-enhancing democratic society.
For, of course, sovereign power must reside in Parliament where issues can be examined and explored with sufficient time and knowledge, in a manner fit and responsible. As the doctor is required to ensure that his or her patient is given every opportunity to make an informed decision on which treatment to follow, so our democratic systems must ensure that the People are properly informed before these momentous decisions can be arrived at, which will affect all our lives and all our deaths.
But whatever the Court decides, wherever sovereign power is understood to reside in a modern society, the question that matters even more is how do we defend our nation’s sovereignty and integrity and how do we identify and punish those who would attack them ? How do we defend our democracy and our language, perhaps even our lives, from the Lie ?
For, in the past, there was a crime defined in law as High Treason. I don’t know of any definition of “Low Treason” but I understand High Treason to mean an act or attempted act against the nation’s sovereignty, its essence, its essential identity, its foundation stone, the word “High” denoting the dire implications and consequences of such an act. Thus, in the reign of King James 1st, Guy Fawkes was found to have conspired with others to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. He was found guilty of High Treason and was sentenced to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered (but managed to avoid experiencing that dreadful sentence in the living flesh by throwing himself off the scaffold and breaking his neck).
So now the strands of this argument come together. A democratic society’s reliance on language, and on trustworthiness in language, is absolute. Honest communication through words is how that society works and has its being and its sovereign power and responsibility cannot meaningfully be exercised without trust in language as sound currency. Since the nation’s essential processes rely on honest language and the nation’s sovereignty rests with the People, then the People must be spoken to in a manner which befits, and this includes truthfulness. If a public figure, in a position of trust, a “public servant,” misuses language, abuses truthfulness, in order to sway the People to his or her own will or self-interest, that person is depriving the People of the essential means by which to exercise power and responsibility in the real world. That public servant is therefore guilty of High Treason and is a felon, an enemy of the State and of the nation’s integrity and sovereignty, its due process and essential being.
Recently, Tory Communities Secretary Sajid Javid came up with a proposal that civic and political leaders should ‘lead by example’ and this could include swearing an oath to abide by “British values”. I don’t know what Mr Javid means by “British values,” (I suspect the term, in the present climate, as a self-interested red,white and blue dog whistle), but I shall end this piece with my own proposal for an Oath which includes identifying the Lie as a crime against our Society. As all those aspiring and preparing to be doctors are required to sign the Hippocratic Oath, binding them to a code of ethical professional conduct to which they are henceforward accountable, so all present and prospective public servants, politicians, their assistants, and also the journalists who report on their activities, should be required to sign their own oath. That oath should focus on the use of language and on telling the truth in language, with the term “truth” defined sufficiently closely to ensure that transgression will be fiercely punished in law, as befits the crime of High Treason. That Oath should be framed and enacted by statute in Parliament.