Sunday, February 26, 2017

Disaffected and Disenfranchised

With the rise of fascism – and that's exactly what Trump, Hanson, Brexit and Le Pen is – there's a couple of words that are really being trotted out: disaffected and disenfranchised. The second can be dismissed as an absurd exaggeration; no one is being told they can't vote. The only recent time this happened in a Western democracy was when thousands of African Americans in Florida were blocked – by deliberate road blocks – from getting to the polling booths, thus giving George W Bush another term.

But people still claim disenfranchisement, as if the term's meaning has some connection with being left out of decision-making because of colour and class, the inference being that lower middle class white people are more left out than other groups, including blacks, South Americans, Muslims and Asians. While we know this is simply untrue, it's also important to stick to the meaning of 'disenfranchise': (OED) 'To deprive of civil or electoral privileges'.

One of the greatest weapons of fascism and totalitarianism is language, in particular the twisting and morphing of meanings of words. Some of the great totalitarian regimes had this down to a T, to the point where names were invented that sounded the exact opposite of what they were: During the French reign of terror The Office Of Public Safety was a department that arranged the arrest and execution of suspects without trial. In the USSR the term mokre dela or wet affairs referred to the process of killing and torturing suspects. Idi Amin borrowed from the French with his Public Safety Unit, in truth a torture gang in Uganda in the mid-seventies.

This outrageous twisting of meaning is almost a kind of psycho-social magic in that we are deceived precisely at the point where we think we aren't. This is a common trick of magicians. When a magician says, “I don't know what your card is” that is most likely the time they will take a peek at your card as it sits on the top, bottom or marked point of the deck. We're fooled by this because we're not trained to deal with that much audacity.

When US Democratic politician Richard Blumenthal lied to the public in 2010 about serving in Vietnam and being captain of the Harvard swimming team (He was a Marine Home guard and wasn't even ON the Harvard swim team) he said, “Sorry, I misspoke”. Some people laughed and a few journalists wrote about it, but this didn't stop Blumenthal from being elected as a senator in 2011. How the public forgot about this, and how they seemingly accepted his use of such absurdly twisted language is of great concern, but understandable given my point about magicians. It's almost as if the public and the press get too tired to keep checking the veracity of things, and thus just allow it all to slip. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kannerman calls this 'cognitive bias', based on his theory that we have a limited capacity to really analyse things deeply (what Kannerman calls 'slow thinking').

To think of the word 'disenfranchised' as anything other than to do with voting is an example of this cognitive bias. We're allowing speech writers to get away with the misappropriation of language because we have a limited ability to be intellectually vigilant. Somehow we've allowed 'disenfranchised' to mean uneducated, lowly paid, not treated kindly, ignored. While these things are negative attributes of Capitalism and class (and also things in dire need of attention in many Western nations) they have nothing to do with enfranchisement.

The other word – disaffected – is being used in an even more elastic fashion. The OED has 'disaffected' as: 1. Evilly affected; estranged in affection or allegiance, unfriendly, hostile; almost always spec. Unfriendly to the Government. 2. Disliked, regarded with aversion.

When pundits from the Right talk and write about Trump and Pauline Hanson voters, they refer to their disaffection as though it's entirely one way, ie happening to the disaffected. There is no sense of them having anything to do with it; they are passive receivers of disaffection. The second meaning above is much more appropriate to this. So, are we simply throwing away the first meaning, which to some is just as valid but far implies active responsibility on behalf of the disaffected. The same double meaning occurs with the word 'Affected'; a person who is affected is sometimes one who is acted upon by another force, but also, and more commonly used, is the active definition whereby the subject has chosen to be a certain way.

The Right wing commentators would have us believe that little choice is involved in Trump and Hanson voters process of disaffection. The implication here is that they've been ignored, left to fend for themselves, and 'regarded with aversion'. How much truth is in the assertion that lower middle class Americans and Australians have been treated thus while the other socio-ethnic groupings have been somehow given better treatment?

That is a question I leave up to anyone with better economic and socio-political credentials than I. I'm simply interested in the way we use and abuse language. Perhaps we could see the reintroduction of a very old (1664) meaning of the word 'disaffected': (OED) Affected with disease, disordered.