Saturday, December 27, 2014

Using language to mould the perfect society

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 26.)
It’s a truism that the English language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the ground is shifting so fast these days that it must be hard for language scholars to keep up.
Consider the word “pupil”. In one of those inexplicable quirks of English usage, it seems suddenly to have been purged from the language.

“Pupil” used to be a handy way of distinguishing children and teenagers of primary and secondary school age from those attending tertiary institutions. But now it seems they’re all students, no matter what their age.
Hence when a primary school is damaged by fire, television reports that the “students” are in shock. Some of these “students” are only five or six years old.

To be consistent, this presumably means that children at kindergarten are now students too.
Changes like these don’t happen spontaneously. They have to start somewhere – but where?

I blame those shadowy figures known collectively as the language police, who are active in academia and the bureaucracy.
These ideologues view language as a means of achieving their vision of an ideal world – one in which all traces of discrimination, real or imagined, are ruthlessly rooted out.

If you view “pupil” as a demeaning word implying subservience, as they presumably do, then it follows that it must be stricken from the language. Impressionable young journalists fall into line and before you know it the word has virtually vanished from the media.
But in the process, the English language has lost another word that helps us express ourselves with precision and clarity – surely the primary object of communication.

“Actress” and “waitress” suffered a similar fate. It’s now considered sexist to distinguish females in these occupations from males; they are all actors and waiters.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the grammarian’s bible, laments that the feminist movement has had a devastating effect on many “-ess” words. In a triumph of ideology over logic, feminist language reformers decided there was something inherently degrading in that “-ess” suffix.
In fact all it does is convey an important and obvious distinction. Acknowledging there is a biological difference between males and females doesn’t mean the sexes are unequal, as the language police would have us believe.
A commonly heard argument is that it doesn’t matter how the language changes, as long as the meaning remains clear. But gender-free English can be ambiguous and misleading. To give an obvious example, to write that a man fancied a waiter in a Courtenay Place bar would create uncertainty as to whether the object of his desire was male or female. For journalists especially, words should be used to avoid ambiguity rather than create it,  
Misguided ideology is responsible for another linguistic absurdity in the form of the word “client”. A client used to be someone who paid for a professional service; now it’s any person who has received a service of any sort, even when someone else is picking up the tab.

The purpose is clear: it’s to make people feel better about themselves. “Client” sounds so much more dignified and deserving than “beneficiary”. It’s probably only a matter of time before imprisoned murderers and rapists become clients of the Corrections Department.  

But ideology can’t be blamed for all the puzzling changes taking place in the usage of English.
A surgery, for example, used to be a place where doctors or dentists administered treatment. Now the word is a synonym for an operation. Hence we hear that an injured sportsman has had a surgery, or that an eye specialist has carried out hundreds of cataract surgeries. “Operation” is bound for extinction.

Then we have nouns being used as verbs and vice-versa. “Impact”, “reference”, “leverage” and “task” used to be nouns. Now we read that a new health policy impacts on sick people, an author references previous works, an entrepreneur leverages his investment and an employee is tasked with increasing sales.
With “reveal” and “disconnect”, it’s the other way around. These are verbs that have morphed into nouns. Kim Dotcom promised “the big reveal” in the Auckland Town Hall and we heard after the election that there was a “disconnect” between Labour and the voters.

Odder still, consider “infringe” and “trespass”. People used to infringe rules; now we hear that a district council has “infringed” someone, meaning it has issued an infringement notice. The usage has been neatly inverted.
Similarly with trespass. You trespass when you illegally enter someone else’s property; all perfectly clear. But police and bureaucrats now talk about troublesome people being “trespassed” from premises such as casinos and ACC offices, meaning they have been banned.

What’s going on here? We can’t blame all these changes on ideologues bent on using language to mould the perfect society. More likely it’s the irrepressible human urge to re-invent things so as to create an illusion of progress.
Either that, or the English language is under the control of bored hobgoblins who keep switching everything around for the sake of pure mischief.

Friday, December 19, 2014

No partridge, and now no quail either

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 17.)

We had a sharp reminder last week of how merciless nature can be.
For several weeks my wife and I had been watching a pair of California quail that had taken up residence somewhere nearby and spent much of their time on our property.

It’s unusual to see quail in an urban environment (we live in the middle of town) and we assumed they were living in the reserve beyond our back fence.
They were very welcome visitors and we did our best to make them feel at home. California quail strike me as benign interlopers. They don’t seem to compete directly with native species for food, they don’t (unlike magpies) harass other birds and they don’t (unlike another Australian immigrant, the spur-winged plover) disturb the peace with raucous calls.

As time went by the quail, which are extremely wary birds, seemed to get used to our presence. For our part, we felt oddly flattered that they felt at home at our place. We hoped that in due course they would appear with a clutch of chicks.
We still assumed they were domiciled somewhere else. Then, a couple of weekends ago, my wife came across their nest as she was clearing undergrowth around the base of a gleditsia tree in the middle of our lawn.

All this time they had been under our noses. Remarkably, they hadn’t been deterred by the roar of the motor mower passing only a metre away.
We fretted that the birds might abandon the nest once their cover was blown, but no; the female resolutely stayed put. The male remained close by, keeping a vigilant eye out for predators.

About a week ago, we were rewarded with the sight we’d been hoping for. Mr and Mrs Quail appeared on the lawn leading seven balls of fluff so tiny that initially it was hard to see them.
We took an irrational pleasure in seeing these comical creatures scrambling to keep up with their parents as they explored the garden, but now we had a new reason to be anxious.

Being ground nesters, quail are highly susceptible to predators. I imagine that’s the reason they typically produce quite large clutches of chicks – sometimes 20 or more. The more chicks, the better the chance that at least some will survive.
Quail chicks also develop very quickly. They can leave the nest with their parents within 24 hours of hatching and can fly (well, as much as quails ever fly) within 10 days. But those 10 days were going to be critical.

We don’t own a cat but some of our neighbours do, and we regularly see them on our section. I’ll sometimes come up across a telltale scattering of feathers indicating one of these hunters has made a kill. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
We quickly became accustomed to the sight of the quail family roaming our section, the chicks growing visibly bigger by the day. We felt like proud proxy parents.

But when there was no sighting for 24 hours, I went looking. It didn’t take long. On the lawn, just a metre from our deck, I saw what I’d hoped not to see: two mangled, bloodied corpses, neatly laid almost on top of each other.
My first impression, from their long legs and surprisingly mature plumage, was that I was looking at the two adult birds. It was almost a relief to realise, on closer investigation, that they were chicks. It was amazing how quickly they had grown.

Of their parents and siblings, there was no sign. We could only hope they had escaped. Even if they had survived, we thought it unlikely that we would see them back. They would now regard our place as a danger zone.
In fact the two adults briefly re-appeared after an absence of several days, but we haven't seen them since. There was no sign of their chicks. Perhaps they were being kept in hiding, but it’s more likely that cats got the whole lot.

We all know this is how nature operates, but it’s a brutal lesson when it strikes so close to home.
Does it make me want to shoot the neighbours’ cats? No. Cats do what they’re biologically programmed to do, which is hunt and kill. But it has certainly made me more sympathetic to Gareth Morgan. I’ve been ambivalent about the presence of cats on our property in the past, but I’ll be observing a zero tolerance policy now.

Until a few days ago, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a last column before Christmas on the theme that while we don’t have a pear tree, still less a partridge, nature had given us a present in the form of that quail family. Unfortunately this is not that column.
It’s hard to explain why the birds brought us such pleasure. They just did. We can only hope the adults will try again, and that this time some chicks will survive.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A nation succumbs to emotional incontinence

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 12.)
I think it was the British psychiatrist and writer Theodore Dalrymple who coined the term “emotional incontinence” to describe mass displays of extravagant grief.
Dalrymple wasn’t referring to the neurological disorder of that name, but a sociological phenomenon that was first noted in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death.

On that occasion the traditionally stoical British public indulged in an uncharacteristic outpouring of mawkish sentimentality, gathering in the streets to weep on each other’s shoulders at impromptu shrines decorated with teddy bears. (Why teddy bears? You tell me.)  
Until recently, that public grief-fest stood as the high-water mark of emotional incontinence. But astonishingly, Australians may have outdone the Brits with their reaction to the death of the cricketer Phillip Hughes.

I say “astonishingly” because Australia likes to think of itself as tough and resilient; a larrikin society where hard men in the tradition of Ned Kelly, Jimmy Spithill, Steve Irwin, Dennis Lillee and the fictional Crocodile Dundee spit in the eye of adversity.
But now the secret is out. Australia’s soft emotional underbelly has been exposed.

Hughes’ death not only triggered an overblown media frenzy that continues almost unabated after two weeks, but seemed to reduce some of his fellow players to gibbering wrecks. Who would have thought Australian cricketers were so emotionally fragile?
Counsellors were working with Australian teams, we were told. Some players might never pad up again.

So traumatised were the Australian players that on the day before this week’s postponed test match against India began, there was still doubt as to whether some would be fit to take the field.
Most memorably, we saw the Australian captain, Michael Clarke breaking down like an overwrought teenager.

“We must dig in and get through to tea,” a quivering Clarke told mourners at Hughes’ funeral, in what sounded suspiciously like a line composed by a PR hack to wring maximum sentiment from the occasion.
We hear a lot these days about PDAs – public displays of affection, usually involving celebrity couples, that are criticised as exercises in attention-seeking. I wonder if intemperate public displays of grief should be similarly discouraged.

Certainly, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such displays are often less about the dead than the living.
Deaths happen in sport – most notably in motor racing, where fellow drivers do their grieving in private and move on.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall Australia’s jockeys being so psychologically damaged by the deaths of two female colleagues in separate accidents in October, only weeks before the Hughes incident, that they cancelled all riding engagements. Jockeys, like racing drivers, must be made of sterner stuff than cricketers.
The grieving for Hughes wasn't just excessive to the point of self-indulgence; it was hypocritical too. As sports columnist Mark Reason pointed out in this paper, it was Michael Clarke who told an English batsman last year, “Face up – get ready for a broken f***ing arm”.

The Australian captain clearly loves to indulge in macho sledging, enjoys pumping up the intimidation, but goes to pieces when a teammate dies as a direct result of gladiatorial aggression on the field. Can he join the dots, or does his ego get in the way?
Of course social media had to get in on the act too, with a mass exercise in dribbling self-pity called Put Out Your Bats, the originator of which – a man so psychologically frail that he burst into tears when he heard of Hughes’ death – was lauded in the Australian media as a hero and a celebrity in his own right.

The Put Out Your Bats campaign captured perfectly the spirit of the social media era. It required little of its participants and achieved nothing beyond making them feel good for having engaged in what they no doubt thought was some sort of profound communal act of catharsis.
To be sure, Hughes’ death was a tragedy – not so much because it robbed Australia of a great cricketing talent, but because every life taken prematurely is a tragedy.

More than anyone, his family would have been grieving, but significantly we heard virtually nothing about them. It was all about the game and its cosseted, self-absorbed stars.
In the same week that Hughes died, my wife lost a much-loved sister. She nursed her in her final days and was with her when she breathed her last.

Bereavement didn’t leave my wife in a state of abject helplessness. The day after we held a farewell ceremony for her sister, she was back at work. That’s what people do in the real world. They just get on with things.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Stop bullshitting us, prime minister

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 3.)
The day after winning re-election, prime minister John Key warned that one of the biggest risks his government faced in its third term was arrogance. What a pity he didn’t heed his own advice.
Over the past few weeks, we have observed a National government that seems determined to live up to every stereotype about third terms. It has been arrogant, smug and incompetent.

Worse than that, it appears to have undergone an integrity by-pass.
Key has given new Labour leader Andrew Little a dream start, and Little has the ability to take full advantage of it. More by good luck than good management, Labour has found itself with a leader who could prove a real handful for National. 

I would go further and say that if National and Key carry on as they have in the past few weeks, there’s a good prospect of a Little-led government in 2017.
Let’s examine National’s performance in greater detail. We’ll start with the accusation of arrogance.

With very little warning, the government proposed radical changes to security laws and allowed practically no time for people to make submissions. It displayed utter contempt for the normal democratic process.
It didn’t even bother trying to explain why an overhaul of the security laws was suddenly so urgent. “Don’t bother your tiny little heads fretting about civil liberties and the right to be free from surveillance,” the government effectively said. “Just believe us when we say the country is at imminent risk of terrorism. Trust us, because we know what we’re doing.”

Trouble was, the legislation was introduced to Parliament in the same week as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence confirmed that the former head of the SIS was up to his eyeballs in the leaking of information calculated to damage one of the National government’s opponents.

Trust them? Yeah, right.
The perception of arrogance was compounded by the performance of the Attorney-General and Minister in Charge of the SIS, Chris Finlayson.

This is the minister charged with ensuring our rights are protected. Yet when Guyon Espiner questioned him on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report about why the security legislation was being bulldozed through Parliament, Finlayson testily replied that the government didn’t have time for “chit-chat”.
He subsequently made what purported to be an apology in Parliament, but he didn’t look at all apologetic to me. In fact he looked very pleased with himself.

Finlayson is reputedly a clever man, and knows it; but clever men have a way of tripping over their own egos. He’s also a list MP, and I wonder if he would be quite so cocky if he had to answer to an electorate.
Even before the appearance of the proposed new security laws, the government had shown signs of third-term arrogance.  Within weeks of winning the election, it had pushed through new employment laws that were widely criticised as eroding workers’ rights.

I’m not convinced that the new laws are quite as oppressive as the critics say, but it was the symbolism that struck me. Here was a newly re-elected government using its majority to ensure the speedy passage of laws that were seen as anti-worker.
If it wanted to send out a signal confirming all those old left-wing claims about National acting in the interests of the bosses, it couldn’t have done a better job.

Now let’s look at the charge of incompetence. Consider the following.
■ Murderer and paedophile Phillip Smith, a man known to be clever and manipulative as well as evil, escaped to South America because of staggering naivety on the part of the Corrections Department;

■ The State Services Commission presided over an embarrassing sexual harassment fiasco in which it was seen as supporting the senior public servant whose behaviour was the subject of the complaint;
■ As already mentioned, the former head of the SIS allowed himself to be used in an underhand smear campaign aimed at discrediting a senior Labour politician.

In each case, incompetence and bad judgment on a grand scale. But did we see any of the responsible cabinet ministers, or even department heads, volunteering to fall on their swords? 
Ministerial accountability used to be a core principle of Westminster-style democracy. Ministers carried the can for their departments’ cockups even when they weren’t personally to blame.

It’s a harsh system, but an effective way of ensuring discipline and accountability right down through the chain of command. It means someone has to pay when things go wrong. After all, if no one suffers, where’s the incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
But don’t hold your breath for waiting for ministers in this government to maintain that tradition. It’s just not going to happen.

Finally, there’s the issue of Key and his relationship with Cameron Slater, which brings us to the subject of integrity.
I now seriously wonder whether the prime minister has any, given his pathetic dissembling over whether he’d been in touch with Slater. That came on top of his preposterous claim recently that when he spoke to Slater, it wasn’t in his capacity as prime minister.

For heaven’s sake, give us a break. This is altogether too cute and too cocky. People have given Key the benefit of the doubt before, but there must come a time when his credibility runs out.
You could argue, I suppose, that if he has some sort of political death wish that compels him to continue dealing with Slater, that’s his prerogative. But what’s inexcusable is that he plays us for mugs by bullshitting us.

At the very least, he should show us a bit more respect.