Some words about freedom
Ottawa, Ukraine and what happens when words get out of proportion
I want to write about the word freedom this week – this week of all weeks.
‘Freedom’ is an abstract noun. When we (Forthwrite, a writing and training consultancy) are talking to organisations about the language they use, we usually caution about littering their copy with too many abstractions. We are pro-verb and very much in favour of nouns which have a solid reality.
There is a big however, however. A word like ‘Freedom’ has a power no ordinary noun could ever possess. It is a word that makes the heart beat faster, especially when someone is talking about a threat to your freedom or a promise to give you more of it. It’s a shapeshifter and a mercenary. As we’ll see, this big and emotive word can be recruited by all kinds of people with all kinds of motives.
Let’s think about fried potatoes
As it planned to invade Iraq, the USA looked for support from its European allies. The French government said ‘no’. Some years earlier, a writer for the TV series The Simpsons had a character call the French ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. That phrase suddenly became fashionable.
And a North Carolina restaurant renamed its French fries ‘Freedom Fries’.
They were both kind of jokes – but like all good jokes, they had a staying power within the world of serious political debate. That ‘surrender monkey’ slur stuck in the minds of many Americans when they think about France. And ‘freedom’ got a new life.
Excuse the nerdiness that follows. ‘French’ is an adjective: it describes the sort of fries you are ordering and their origin. In replacing it, the consumers of ‘freedom fries’ used that abstract noun adjectivally, only this time it said something about the people who sold the chips and the people who ate them. In some weird 21s century twist on the Eucharist, by eating freedom fries, you somehow absorbed the spirit of freedom into yourself.
Fast-forward to Ottawa
Let’s see who Freedom, that great mercenary word, is now fighting for and why.
I’ve been looking at some images of banners from the Ottawa protests. Free Canada. Mandate Freedom. There’s a drawing of Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Prime Minister, with a Hitler moustache. The banners proclaim the people holding them are United Against Tyranny.
Let’s remember what tyranny the Canadian government was imposing, what Nazi-style oppression they were engaged in. They were saying if you want to cross the US border in your truck, you need to be vaccinated against COVID.
The drivers were free to make their choice and not be vaccinated. But in extreme times, like a pandemic, governments have had to look to measure that bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That’s been hard for freedom-loving democracies everywhere, let alone the naturally libertarian, like the UK government
I’m not getting into the politics of anti-vaxx. But what are these people on? They are free to say what they like. But to equate those checks with Nazism, with tyranny, with real oppression – did any of them think, once, how people whose countries and lives have been devastated by real tyranny, by real oppression feel?
Which brings me to Ukraine.
Freedom does have a face
A European country of 40 million people is fighting for its freedom. Russia – or at least the Russian leader – has ordained that it has no right to an independent existence. Any of its democratically-elected leaders who dare to oppose the imposition of a Russian-backed government will be arrested or assassinated. Ukraininans will lose their liberty of their lives.
So, let’s ask the people who marched in Ottawa and on Capitol Hill: where are your freedom banners now?
Here’s what America’s Far Right says. President Trump calls Putin ‘smart’ and ‘savvy’ (ironic he should use a modern corruption of the French word ‘savoir faire’).
Their spiritual leader, TV host, Tucker Carlson (below), said there is no earthly reason why Americans should care what is happening in Ukraine. As for Putin, Carlson asks his audience: “‘Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?’”
So, as the freedom of 40 million people is about to be ended by a real tyrant with real guns and tanks, Carlson contrives to bring the whole thing back to America’s endless culture wars. Forget people dying fighting for their freedom on the streets of Kyiv. Let’s remember what really matters: what words I want to use in an American office or school.
Of all the obscene words I’ve read this week, these are the most obscene of the lot.
The language of war
The great peacekeeper
Many lies have come from the mouths of Mr Putin and his people. The invasion was first described as “implementation of peacekeeping functions”.
This brings me back to the point I’m always banging on about in writing sessions. If you want to distance yourself from your actions, or disguise them, avoid verbs and use long, complicated nouns. An implementation of a function. It could barely sound more humdrum and technocratic.
If you are a politician, you may want to use a word favoured by your ideological opponents and turn it on its head. So if someone finds out you are lying, accuse them of spreading fake news. If you are about to embark on a savage and unprovoked war, call it ‘peacekeeping’.
I find myself in a weird position of making a comparison between what some marketing or communications professionals might write in a press release or a tender to the words of the man who currently poses the greatest threat to world peace since 1945.
My only defence is this: the words we use really do matter. If Ukrainians lose their freedom, the least we can do is try to save the word.