In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

An Inflation of Rhetoric II

Powered by a dynamo of sanctimony, shrill voices screech in many political debates. It appears commonplace that reserved terms – words and phrases with important and valuable meanings – are used catachrestically.

Modern slavery is meant to refer to contemporary practices similar to slavery, after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. According to the United Nations, modern slavery takes on multiple forms, including child soldiers, sex trafficking and debt bondage. In particular, debt bondage is the status where a nominal ‘loan’ is given – though it is never repayable and passed through generations – with violence and threats delivered to prevent escape. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states debt bondage “can hardly be distinguished from traditional slavery”. Giles Fraser, a priest of the Church of England and Guardian contributor, wrote:

Those who are trapped in Wonga’s wicked 5,000% APR, often borrowing money to pay off other loans, thus deepening the crisis, have their lives owned by other people – by those, in this instance, making £50m a year profit off their misery. This is modern slavery.

Firstly, small, short-term loans will have a large Annual Percentage Rate (APR) when the interest rate is annualised, but these loans are never meant to be paid over a whole year.  Secondly, pay-day lenders do not use force to make recipients accept these loans. Thirdly, if the loan is not repaid, the Wonga puppets do not visit their customer’s house to violently assault and sexually abuse them. Fourthly, debt enslavers rarely receive a 92% customer recommendation rate. Fifthly, Wonga published in 2013 that 91.2% of their loans were repaid on time, with 23.5% of loans repaid early. Pay-day lending is completely incomparable to slavery and debt bondage.

Can receiving a short-term loan really be compared to debt bondage and sex trafficking? (Photo: marc falardeau)

Can receiving a short-term loan really be compared to debt bondage and sex trafficking? (Photo: marc falardeau)

Political commentator and blogger Sunny Hundal wrote an article entitled Are Right-Wingers Evil? Yes. This article led columnist Hugo Rifkind to call Mr Hundal “the blogosphere’s answer to Karl Pilkington”. Mr Hundal provides the following definition of evil:

If a person of considerable power and responsibility deliberately ignores or cheers on policies that lead to multiple deaths, they are evil.

This definition describes every Defence Secretary as ‘evil’, since both military action and inaction lead to many deaths.  Shared Cabinet responsibility means that all other government ministers must fit this definition too. In Mr Hundal’s definition, the person must intentionally ignore or cheer on the policy, not that the policy must enact intentional death. Given intent is excised, this definition is unsatisfactory.

Ultimately, labelling political opponents as ‘evil’ is a debasement of the English language. If people who believe government spending should be reduced by 2.1% in real terms over five years are ‘evil’, then what word do we use to describe serial killers, terrorists and genocidaires: double-evil? These proclamations of villainy circumvent actual argumentation and debate, instead substituting for attacks on their supposed motivations.

‘Slavery’ and ‘evil’ are terms that should be reserved, as they exhibit historical and religious significance. This inflation of rhetoric harms our politics, as we are diverted to consider absurd accusations.

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4 comments on “An Inflation of Rhetoric II

  1. Simon O'Kane
    August 6, 2013

    If you think about it, there are very few of us who don’t have blood on our hands. The vast majority of us have acted in some way (through, for example, our purchases) that have contributed to avoidable deaths in the developing world.

    There are a few right-wingers (for example, Rupert Murdoch, for his brazen abuse of power on many occasions and his contribution to racism in Australia) who I personally believe to be genuinely evil, but a much better question to put would be, “are right-wing *ideas* evil?” I think the death penalty, racism, sexism, class-ism and homophobia are evil, but I don’t denounce every person who exhibits them as evil. Instead, I try to help them.

    • Anthony Masters
      August 6, 2013

      The problem I have with using the term ‘evil’ is that it degrades the language, placing questionable people like Rupert Murdoch in the same category as genocidal dictators. It also ignores the wealth of better words for what is being described.
      Moreover, I do not believe words like ‘evil’ apply to ideas inside minds. Ideas, once applied, may gain such credence resulting from their applications. A single idea can have a variety of applications. I do not recognise those listed ideas in myself.
      Using words like ‘evil’ means a debate crumbles from the rational level of public policy to the evangelical level of angels and demons, whilst gilding the accuser in the belief that they are serving a higher purpose.

      • Chris Hare
        August 7, 2013

        In the absence of an absolute morality, I would question whether ‘evil’ is a term that can ever be used meaningfully, and, as such, whether the degradation you speak of is illusory. Certainly, people like to have the word to describe serial killers, terrorists and cats that look at them funnily, but I’m not sure it particularly serves as anything other than short-hand for “something I don’t like, or society tells me I don’t like, and either cannot or will not understand”.

      • Anthony Masters
        August 7, 2013

        I agree that there is no absolute morality, but we can consider the aggregates of subjective morality. There is certainly a difference between merely disagreeing with something and labelling it ‘evil’.
        Words have definitions – they may change over time, but I think we’ll lose part of our language if people regularly term “cats that look at them funnily” as ‘evil’.

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