Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Meaning Of 'Words Should Carry Meaning'

A final thought for 2011.

I mulled over why I used this as a title in my recent blog-post about my on-going complaint to the BBC about that programme they aired back in October. I had heard some version of it before elsewhere and I know exactly what it meant. Some googling reveals it is used in high-brow topics on sceptical, science and watchdog blogs, usually the topic being intellectual dishonesty.

Intellectual dishonesty as far as I can define it is when someone is trying to win, dispute or avoid an argument no matter the cost. This is not to be confused with the philosophical dilemma of Truth VS The Greater Good where to avoid harm facts must be withheld. Pictures of prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib prison by US military personnel were in fairly wide circulation among those in the US media industry months before the story was finally broken to the public. Even the anti-war film-maker Michael Moore admitted he had seen them but didn't seize the opportunity. The reason was simple: this would have inflamed the insurgency and put soldiers not at all involved in the scandal in greater danger.

So in a nutshell: intellectual dishonesty is when that paradigm is taken and 'The Greater Good' means what ever agenda the person trusted to be honest is pursuing instead. The one problem with this is that anyone can accuse anyone of doing this. The BBC is frequently accused of it- too 'Left-wing' apparently, even though the revolutionary but (mostly)law-abiding activist Jodie McIntyre who had been tipped out of his wheelchair by an untrained policeman and dragged across the street with his legs trailing behind was given an interview far more interrogative and hostile than most of the Cabinet Ministers ever have. I don't see that as typically 'Left-wing', I couldn't even say it could be called neutral or non-partisan.

A different definition is given by the blogs I've read, one which doesn't simply describe what intellectual dishonesty looks like but what it actually does. There is it seems a consensus: intellectual dishonesty is ultimately when words have no inherent meaning.

When I first made a complaint about that programme I couldn't accuse the makers of intellectual dishonesty because in all irony; that term itself has been subjected to so much of its own active ingredient that it has become merely an opinion on which people can agree to disagree- the inherent meaning is lost and the accusation would instead be interpreted as bias. What stands out is how callous and careless the makers were with words, which goes for virtually all mainstream media reporting on social security recently and for their eventual response to my complaint. Their primary tool is meaninglessness itself, the reduction of everything into mundane and neutral modes, cliches and 'sides' in a debate. It seems rational that a platform for informing the public would allow them to come to their own conclusions but only after rigorously collecting the facts and arranging them into a clarifying rather than misleading or confusing context. But this is not what many outlets seem to do and unfortunately the BBC has recently been guilty of this: we instead are invited to come to our own conclusions after being bombarded with opinions supported with facts selected to support those opinions. That would be very difficult for news and current affairs outlets to do if words were understood beforehand to have inherent meaning that isn't subject to wider interpretation than that: they would have to choose words that correspond directly with the full evidence available to them or else they are outright lying.

From that programme, I used this claim by John Humphrys as one of my examples:
"So your local doctor no longer has the final say. More stringent tests have been brought in to flush out people claiming on health grounds when they shouldn't be."
I then specifically identified that Humphrys is making a claim that excludes anything other than the present tense in regard to GPs not having 'final say' on IB-ESA awards. He excludes very strongly that doctors did not actually have the final say in the past neither. He has outright claimed that doctors used to simply sign people off and they could then claim Incapacity Benefit. I did not mention it at the time, but for some reason he links this with the 'more stringent tests'. The response of the makers of the programme was a breath-taking assault on the idea that words have meaning, the first part:

"Claims for Incapacity Benefit were ultimately approved or not approved by the DWP..."
Which means therefore that John Humphrys statement was categorically wrong and misled the audience, no 'ifs' or 'buts'. They still try with a 'but':
"...but the weight afforded to a GP's opinion of a patient's state of health and suitability for work was much greater than it now is under ESA."
It might have been, but as usual no source for this new claim is given and it doesn't matter anyway because no explanation is given for why John Humphrys' "your local doctor no longer has the final say" and "claims for Incapacity Benefit were ultimately approved or not approved by the DWP" can both be truthful: they each exclude the other if their words have meaning.

The ideas that are prevalent about welfare reform and benefit claimants survive because intellectual dishonesty has corrupted almost everything. They make a mockery of those investigative heroes who do have to make serious Truth VS The Greater Good decisions, those choices which are genuinely difficult and are made with an expectation that the truth will eventually out anyway and it must be weighed up how much harm can be avoided with the choice to be made in the present.

The decision to make words meaningless is not difficult; cowardice never is.

1 comment:

  1. INDEED.The "debate" about Social Security changes is awash with meaningless words/cliches which severely limit such debate.One example of the meaninglessness of words associated with Government policy is the proposed change to IS/SMI where to fit into the rhetoric of "making work pay" it advocates reduction and later charging on sale of house /death as one option .It is already time limited to JSA recipients and the vast majority are not expected to work or already work as much as they are able-Carers,people with disabilities and pensioners-beyond satire.