Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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How freedom became a meaningless word


LANGUAGE is a key frontier in the culture war, of which Covid opinion is now part; the very words we use to describe our lives are under assault. We think with words, we use words to describe what we see, how we feel and myriad human experiences. It would be difficult to explain something to another person when you didn’t know the word for it. It becomes even harder when the word no longer matches the meaning; when the person listening has never come across, in real life, such things and they sound too fantastical to be true.

Currently there are only a handful of words any sane person could use to describe our lives: ‘lockdown’, ‘tier’, ‘self-isolate’, ‘quarantine’, ‘social-distance’ and ‘infected’. At a stroke words previously used to talk about our lives such as ‘spontaneous’, ‘joyful’, ‘natural’ are neutered and ridiculed as utopian ideals to which we can return only once we control the virus . . . Confined to our linguistic coffin, we are not living but merely existing.

‘Freedom’ is a word of profound importance, hence why its meaning has been tinkered with, little by little. The greater the time between pre-March 23 ‘freedom’ and now, the weaker the original meaning becomes. A once-fundamental concept is now seen as a conditional reward for good behaviour if the Prime Minister allows it. No more casual nights out at the pub, catching up with old friends and making new ones; this is an especially dangerous activity – unless one orders a scotch egg.

The term ‘lockdown’ is bandied around so casually we have forgotten whence it originated: American prisons, as an extra punishment for inmates breaking the rules. Now it is carelessly trivialised, as if being under government-decreed quasi-house arrest is a normal state of affairs. Let’s be frank too about ‘face-coverings’: they force conformity and acquiescence to illogical rules.

Front and centre amongst the words which have lost their meaning is ‘health’. One is now pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic, symptomatic or post-symptomatic. If this is to be believed, our immune systems have packed their bags and left after many centuries of happy co-existence.

Appearing a close second on the roll is ‘hero’ and all derivatives thereof. People doing the jobs they are paid to do, and have chosen to do, are not heroes. It is not ‘heroic’ for a DHL driver to bring you a box of Amazon junk; nor is stacking supermarket shelves – I have done it, and whilst reasonably enjoyable for obsessive compulsives it does not bestow glory and honour upon the worker. We should also beware the danger of making false idols out of deified overlords who govern hospitals across the land.

Though lower on the list I feel this is the most grating: ‘safe’. I do not want you to keep me safe. It is not your job; indeed, it is none of your business. Should I feel like taking the immense risk of passing another on the pavement rather than stepping blindly into a busy road, that is my prerogative.

‘Care home’ is a euphemism hiding what such places have become: prisons in which ‘residents’ pay for the privilege of being locked up.

We must use the brilliantly diverse and expressive English language more effectively and be on guard against the fiddlers and the fools.

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