Dictionary of Loaded Phrases

This is a short list of loaded phrases. All of them have actually become part of propaganda, in various ways that I shall go on to detail.

All have the property that it's possible to use them without realising they have become loaded, and that the words actually have a meaning distinct from the way that they are used. This should be more widely recognised.

What to do about them?

In the past, I've suggested to various people that I'd prefer it if they avoid using phrases such as these. It seems to get a relatively warm response: I think people would rather have their form of expression criticised, than the ideas they are expressing.

The words

Support the Troops

Imagine you found out that your girlfriend was a kleptomaniac. Suppose you wished to support her; what would that mean?

Of course, kleptomania is a bad thing all round. You wouldn't want your girlfriend's victims to be deprived of their possessions by your girlfriend's compulsive behaviour. Ideally, you wouldn't want your girlfriend suffering in prison, after being convicted of a run of thefts she committed because of an untreated personality disorder.

So, what would be supportive things to do? You would talk things over with your girlfriend, however, you would be certain to express disapproval of what she's doing. Indeed, you would try to ensure that she knew it to be wrong, and try to work out what would stop her doing it.

You would encourage her to put an end to it, and to seek help. This process might possibly be painful and introspective, but it would be the supportive thing to do. In an extreme case, you might be most supportive by telling the police before it got out of control.

Usually, when I hear people talking about supporting the troops, they don't seem to mean this kind of support.

Firstly, the idea they have seems to come hand-in-hand with celebrating the military activities of troops (attending homecoming parades, and suchlike). Their role as troops involves doing things which they didn't choose to do; it is possible (independently of whether or not the troops are fine people) that these are in fact bad things. If this is the case, then it's not supporting the troops to celebrate these things, any more than you would be supporting your girlfriend by celebrating her acts of theft.

Secondly, I've heard people use their notion in direct opposition to the notion of commenting on the wars they are fighting. This was particularly noticeable after the Iraq war started; people started saying things like "I understand your former opposition to the Iraq war, but hadn't we better stop discussing it and just start supporting the troops now?". This makes no more sense than saying "I understand you were formerly opposed to theft, but hadn't you just better start supporting your thieving girlfriend now?".

So activities which are supportive of the troops might certainly include opposing the wars they fight.

And naturally, the question rarely arises of how much support the victims of our troops deserve. It's a perfectly reasonable question, and never discussed.

So in practice I think supporting the troops is a propaganda term, which really means supporting the way the troops are being used. I happen not to support the way that British troops are being used, and the confusion of language makes this simple point hard to state.

Terrorist

The propaganda uses of this term have been discussed at length, not least by Noam Chomsky. What I record here is purely an amusing recent example.

Today, I did a search of the BBC news for the words dissident and terrorist; all the top seven hits for dissident refer to Northern Irish republicans. However, the word terrorist is used systematically to describe Muslims.

The logical difference between the two types of people is too subtle for me to comprehend, but the BBC has apparently made an editorial decision to label Northern Irish republican terrorism as "dissident activity" rather than "terrorism".

This is clear and unmistakeable evidence that the words are being used as propaganda. The British government can get a lot of mileage out of advertising the terror threat from Muslims; there has been a massive and obvious programme to do so (the most recent example being the intensively publicised "terror raids", which ended up with no charges, but strong evidence in the form of a bag of sugar). However, there is no such advantage to advertising the terror threat from the republican Northern Irish; it makes their peace process look bad.

The big problem is the lack of consistency. Trying to call everyone currently called a terrorist a dissident instead doesn't seem like a bad solution, for now.

Intellectual Property

This is a nod to an essay by Richard Stallman, which makes this same point more eloquently than I can.

The basic point is that the term intellectual property covers a wide range of completely different legal notions: copyright, patents, tradesmarks, registered designs, and so on. There is substantial variation between them (and some variation from country to country).

Calling it intellectual property does not just muddy the distinction between them, it raises the new and incorrect suggestion that these things work together to create a single coherent concept quite like the traditional notion of property. They don't.

This incorrect idea can then be used to support the creation of further, more blatant propaganda terms without comment. Like theft in place of something sensible like illegal copying. The key point of theft, of course, is that the owner is deprived of what's being stolen. That's not true of illegally copied material.

Or, worse, piracy for the same notion. This use is so ridiculous as to not merit comment.

So, instead of the loaded term intellectual property, I suggest using the constituent parts copyright, patents, tradesmarks and so on. Having a term that covers all of them is of limited use anyway, but certainly does more harm than good at the moment.

Nuclear Deterrent

I have commented on this one before.

The term nuclear deterrent is clearly a loaded term. It's almost always used to describe one's own nuclear weapons, rather than those of one's official enemies.

It's far from clear that British nuclear weapons deter anyone from doing anything. Nobody has shown very much hostility against Germany or Japan since World War II, despite their complete lack of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the British nuclear deterrent didn't do much to deter Egypt in 1956 or Argentina in 1982.

In fact, it seems slightly more plausible to me that our official enemies' nuclear weapons do in fact have a deterrent effect: we have attacked Iraq who did not have them (ostensibly on the grounds that they did have them), but not Iran or North Korea, presumably because they actually might have them.

The term nuclear weapons and nuclear arsenal do exactly the same job, but in a neutral way and are quicker.

Got more?

I suspect there are loads more euphemisms like this; if you have a favourite, let me (cranch at cantab dot net) know and I might add it. Of course, comments on those I have are also most welcome.

Appendix: a lawyer writes...

Tom Jackman got in touch to say this:

I agree that IP is a problematic term and that its use is frequently misleading. I agree that it would be better to use specifics where they apply. However, an umbrella term does have a role to play. It would be silly for me to talk about having done four exam papers in my final year: Equity; EU law; Labour law; and the law relating to copyright, trademarks, registered design rights, patents, breach of confidence and passing off. These are studied (and indeed practised) together because they share common characteristics. There is an interesting debate as to whether they should be analysed as a single regime.

In any case, always using specifics can help the propagandists: "The company has not violated any copyright or trademark legislation in Namibia". Namibia may have similar laws by other names (or indeed non-legislative copyright or trademark laws) which have been infringed or the company may have infringed patents, but the statement sounds good.

I hadn't though about this before but now that I do it strikes me that the best solution would be twofold:

  1. use the specific wherever appropriate; and
  2. when it is appropriate to use an umbrella term, use "IP rights".

Consider the two uses of the word "criminal". As a noun, this refers to a person who has engaged in behaviour which is criminal. Thus the noun is defined by reference to the adjective. Criminal behaviour has an extraordinarily wide scope, but can be identified by common legal characteristics (in particular, the responsible courts and the penal nature of sanctions). There is no such thing as a criminal without behaviour which is criminal. Similarly there is no such thing as IP without an IP right.

So in the above example, we should seek the more reassuring confirmation that "the company has not infringed any IP rights in Namibia". Certainly there are legal rights the appropriate categorisation of which is debateable, but this is very much at the margins.

IP does have a meaning - anything protected by an IP right. Is the logo for a business IP? Answer: it is if has been registered as a trademark, but otherwise it isn't. Nevertheless, I agree that IP tends to sound like a thing which can be stolen, which it isn't. It would be more accurate and logical to discuss IP rights and the infringement of them.

Taken at face value, at least there seems like no good reason to use the word property at all. The things called IP rights in Tom's comment could just be called intellectual rights, and the concept thus created could be called intellectual wealth or something a bit more intangible like that.