Dialogue: Struggling for right meaning

By David Hill

By DAVID HILL

The English language is notable for the nimble way it can mean the opposite of what it says.

Example? Listen to a teenager scoffing "Yeah, right" and be aware how wrong you really are.

It's irony, of course: the technique of saying or writing "brilliant" when you mean "stupid". And one current trio of ironic expressions seems to show a particular mindset in this country.

A couple of centuries back, if I lived a non-wasted life, people might have been kind enough to call me a virtuous man. Nowadays they would call me a do-gooder, wouldn't they? Of course they wouldn't.

As now used on talkback radio and in letters to the editor, do-gooder has nothing to do with virtue. It denotes some misguided busybody interfering on behalf of ethnic minorities or criminals. (Talkback callers and letter-writers know that at least one of those groups should be locked up with a throwaway key.)

If you are a do-gooder, you are probably also a liberal, which everyone knows means generous of attitude and unprejudiced of mind, just as the dictionary says.

No, everyone doesn't. Those who whack people around the head with the word use it to mean sandal-wearing, social-working, arty-farty opponents of corporal punishment and life sentences that really mean life sentences.

These critics of liberals are not conservatives, as you might expect from the dictionary. They are commonsense graduates of the School of Hard Knocks and the University of Life. One of them told me so.

So you are a do-gooder and a liberal. Inevitably, the third component in this ironic trio will also apply to you. You are politically correct.

Politically correct is the most overtly ironic of the threesome. People who use it are actually telling you that you are wrong, wrong, wrong ... but they do not have the arguments or facts to prove it, so they will call you names instead.

Indeed, if I were to offer a current dictionary definition of politically correct, I would suggest "Holding ideas originating after 1940 which I vehemently oppose but am unable to refute".

Other expressions often accompany this unholy trinity. There is bleeding heart, meaning someone who believes thrashings and jailings may not always be the perfect solution.

There is trendy, referring to anyone who studied at academies other than the colleges of Hard Knocks and Life.

I said before that using such expressions reflects a mindset in our society.

It is a mindset of resentment and powerlessness.

Calling names is essentially a child's technique, and accusing someone of being a politically correct liberal do-gooder usually indicates the name-caller is raging as helplessly as any child against something he cannot beat but will not join.

Solutions? It would be nice if politicians set an example by avoiding such phrases, but I am not holding my breath.

It would be nice - and possible - if talkback hosts and Sunday paper columnists did the same.

It would also help if some do-gooding etcs did not parade their purity quite so much, and avoided name-calling in return. I am not impressed by present usage of fascist and fundamentalist.

And it would be grand if (ab)users of the above trio paused and thought what their name-calling implies about themselves.

I mean, who really wants to concede they are a politically misguided, reactionary evil-doer?

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