Saturday, 16 May 2009

Weasel Words: "Politicise"

To "politicise" is often used as a shorthand term of abuse by politicians. I have heard one local politician complain that "The whole matter of childcare has become politicised", or words very similar, and using the dreaded "p" word. I have a strong intuition that if the word was banned, it would actually make politicians think more clearly about what they want to say, rather than reaching for lazy language.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "politicise" has two extant meanings. One is "to engage in or talk about politics", the other is "to make political, or politically aware".

For examples of the first - Horace Walpole in 1758 wrote "But while I am politicizing, I forget to tell you half the purport of my letter". Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1841 on heroes noted that "Burns could have governed, debated in National Assemblies; politicised, as few could.". And in the modern period, only in 1991, Roy Jenkins wrote that "Between holidays I also wrote as well as politicised in those early 1960s years."

For the second, In 1776 Stahlberg, in his history of Sweden, noted that "Those who, in their sermons, inveighed against public crimes, were said to politicise" - that is, bring this matter to the public (political) arena. This is closer to the modern usage, but we must be careful not to read back modern meanings into that text (- commonly known in semantics as the "illegitimate totality fallacy")

Neither really sums up the way in which "politicise "is often used - which I think could be better described as "to make personal political capital out of an issue"(my own definition). In that sense, it might be correct, but the case has to be proven, and often just using the word "politicise" is taken as proof that someone is doing this.

Senator Stuart Syvret, for example, has been accused of "politicising" the situation at Haut de la Garenne by former Chief Minister Frank Walker  which in this context means more "use for political advantage". Equally, Senator Syvret has accused the Bailiff and Attorney-General of becoming "politicised".

Here it functions very like a variant on "ad hominem" argument, which consists of replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to a characteristic or belief of the source making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim.

It may take longer, and involve more words, but I think that rather than use a word which has become often more of a "mud-slinging" accusation, it would be better if it were dropped completely, rather than used as a very lazy and often very sloppy shorthand.

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