Monday, 16 March 2009

Masking the Truth?

The unpleasant exchanges began during question time as Environment Minister Freddie Cohen was answering a question. Senator Syvret stood up and said: 'On a point of order, I am sorry to interrupt the minister. But the minister to my right, Senator Perchard, is saying in my ear "you are full of f*****g s**t, why don't you go and top yourself, you bastard".'Senator Perchard immediately responded by saying: 'I absolutely refute that. I am just fed up with this man making up allegations against people. I just wish he would not.'

Roger: Chris, those that were listening to question time may have heard some words we cannot repeat...
Chris: Well, it was the Father of the House, Senator Stuart Syvret who interrupted an answer to say the Health Minister had verbally abused him and said he should 'top himself'. We can't use the words the Senator said aloud in the States, but Senator Jimmy Perchard strongly refuted them and claimed it was part of a personal vendetta Senator Syvret was waging against him. The Deputy Bailiff, who was presiding over the meeting yesterday, said he couldn't rule on a private conversation but asked politicians to treat each other courteously and not use abusive language about or to each other.

From reading the report in the JEP and on the States website, one would be forgiven for thinking that Senator Perchard had denied any kind of bad language - "strongly refuted" was the term used. In fact, on Sunday 15th March, on Talkback, he admitted that he had used bad language - that he had been swearing at Stuart Syvret - only that the swearing he used was not that which Senator Syvret reported, and that was what he really meant by "refuted", which seems a very pathetic excuse. And he apologised for the swearing, saying that it was not statesmanlike, but was part of a private conversation.

I marvel at the way that argument keeps cropping up. When Frank Walker famously used the phrase "you're trying to shaft Jersey internationally", he mentioned that it was a private exchange, and he was not aware that it was being recorded. Somehow it is deemed fine to engage in all kinds of vulgarity, and insults, and stoop to any level, as long as it is "a private conversation". Personally, the idea of a politician who wears two faces - or should it be - has two voices - one for public consumption, and a nastier more unpleasant one for private use - does not strike me as particularly endearing, and not the kind of politician I would like to vote for. After all, if they have two different sides with respect to language, what else might they behave like "in private"?

Usually, it is the other way round, of course, and people who have been pretty nasty in public are praised for private virtues - such as Himmler for being "a family man" - which is used as an excuse for public brutalities. But I'd like my politicians to be all of a piece. If they are political thugs in private, I'd wonder how they behave behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers, or how they might behave if I contacted them as a member of the electorate on a personal but political matter such as housing or planning.

Linda Corby has alleged that the late John Le Sueur, as President of the Planning Committee (IDC as it was called) on one occasion asked for "favours" in order to grant planning permission. Once the "private conversation" is taken out of the equation, all kinds of mischief can go on, all excusable, it would seem.

But who is the real politician? The polite one at the hustings, or is that just a mask used to gain votes because voters might not like it if the mask slipped, and "private conversations" became public?


Rob Kent said...

I also don't like it when people casually use the word 'refute' (to prove something wrong) when they actually mean 'deny'.

You can only refute something by advancing incrontrovertible evidence that proves it to be untrue.

For example, if you accuse me of not paying my income tax and I then show you my submitted tax return and P60 (tax statement), I have refuted your allegation.

If I merely say, 'I do pay my taxes', I have only denied the allegation.

Senator Perchard merely denied saying those words - he hasn't refuted the allegation. It would be difficult to refute an allegation about a private conversation, unless it was not actually private, but overheard by others, who might be able to settle the dispute.

TonyTheProf said...

Actually it has two meanings as a verb (at least)

1 To prove to be false or erroneous; overthrow by argument or proof: refute testimony.
2 To deny the accuracy or truth of: refuted the results of the poll.

The second meaning has been growing in usuage since at least the 1960s when someone complained about it! Examples below.

With my linguistic hat on, I would have to say that meaning is created and changed by usuage, not fixed in stone. See Steven Pinker "Word's and Rules".

1964 C. BARBER Ling. Change Present-Day Eng. v. 118 For people who still use the word in its older sense it is rather shocking to hear on the B.B.C., which has a reputation for political impartiality, a news-report that Politician A has refuted the arguments of Politician B. 1978 Observer 7 May 4/9 Mr O'Brien, who was first elected general secretary three years ago, refutes the allegations. 1979 Daily Mail 17 Feb. 15/3 He refuted allegations that she took her own life because of police harassment. 1980 Bookseller 19 July 257/1, I refute Mr Bodey's allegation that it is our policy not to observe publication dates, and to display new titles in newsagents immediately on receipt from the publisher.

Rob Kent said...

Yes, I'm a volatilist, with Pinker, and definitely not a language maven, but there is now a refute-shaped hole in the English language which politicians frequently slip through to wriggle out of tricky situations.

They refute (2) by playing on the association with refute (1). I refute (3) their legitimacy to do this.

CF Refute 3: To deny the truth of someone's statement on the grounds of ambiguity.

Dave Rotherham said...

It still seems more of a malapropism than a usage to me.

Anonymous said...

Good posting Tony, the critical issue has to be integrity.

What you see/here with Stuart Syvret is what you get - no pretence difficult to swallow sometimes (the truth often is)but nothing hidden.

Jimmy Perchard on the other hand tries to present a slick, smooth persona - just look at his photograph, the razor sharp creases in his chinos, but the reality is very different a rough, unintelligent bully. One face for the public but the true personality concealed, whispered and denied.

Who is the better politician, ,my vote would go to Syvret every time.

Captain Fantastic said...

In respect of the politicians concerned - two wrongs don't make a right.
I rate them on a par with each other - not very highly.
Neither politician has behaved like a statesmen and again both are making the island appear internationally like a bunch of country hicks, which is what many of our statesmen actually are.
I do give praise to the way the chair handled the schoolboy spat, what a shame he and his colleagues are under fire from Deputy Hill & the JDA, what have they ever done for democracy? = 0