Friday, January 27, 2017


I am in favor of using words correctly. I don’t think that you should say “depressed” if what you mean is “sad”; I don’t think you should say “bipolar” if what you mean is “moody”; and I definitely don’t think you should say “autistic” if what you mean is “shy.” It’s insulting and patronizing to people who are actually depressed or bipolar; and it’s also a kind of linguistic inflation. (If you say “depression” when you mean “sadness” you have to make up a new word for when “depression” is what you actually do mean.) It would have been better if we’d never started using “poxy” to mean “small” or “lame” to mean “inadequate” or “psychotic” to mean cross. In fact, you probably shouldn’t say “surreal” if what you mean “silly” or “existential” if what you mean is “gloomy” or “random” if what you mean is…whatever kids mean by “random” nowadays. 

But I don’t want to go too far in that direction. Otherwise I’ll turn into one of those boring people who says that “decimate” only ever means “divide by ten” and that “gay” only ever means “brightly colored” and that “literally” can never mean “figuratively”. And that’s literally the thin end of the wedge. 

I believe I am correct in saying that “mad” no longer has any medical meaning, but does retain a legal meaning. And it definitely has a lot of colloquial meanings. I’ll get mad if you are rude about Star Wars because I’m on mad on Star Wars. The original meaning of “crazy” was “cracked”: if I say that my garden has crazy paving, I’m using it in the older sense. It was applied to people by analogy. (I remember the original Star Wars craze: people went crazy about it.) 

If my friend tells me that he has met and spoken with a fairy (which, as previously mentioned, at least three of my friends have in fact done) there are basically three possibilities

1: There really are fairies, and I need to expand my view of reality to encompass such creatures or 

2: My friend is lying, or telling fairy stories, with or without the encouragement of Mr Conan Doyle. 

3: My friend is mad, crazy, delusional or hallucinating. 

If I went with 3, I don't think I would be providing an amateur diagnosis, or patronizing my other friends who have to cope with mental conditions every day. I think that mad, cracked, crazy, or two land cards short of a Magic deck is a word we use to describe people who see stuff which isn't actually there. 

"What do you think about the people you say claim to have really met fairies, Andrew?” 

“I think that one of them was describing a spiritual experience — ‘In a particular location, I felt something I cannot explain, and “fairies” is the name I am going to give to that experience’ If he’d come from a different background, he might have said that he’d encountered the Blessed Virgin. I think that one of them was talking about faith: I think that fairies form part of his neo-pagan belief system. I think the other one had done a lot of drugs.” 

It seems to me that there comes a point at which a person — a politician, say — denies facts — about vaccination, say, or climate change, or the number of people who attended an inauguration ceremony — to such an extend that the rest of us are entitled to say “Either you are lying, or your are crazy.” 


The famously sane Tony Blair used to claim that it didn’t matter whether a particular policy was “left wing”, “right wing”, “conservative” or “liberal”; as Prime Minister he would do “whatever worked”. 

This is, of course, bullshit.

You can only tell if something has "worked" if you know what result you wanted; and the result you want depends greatly on whether you are left wing, right wing, conservative or liberal.  Someone might think that a law and order policy worked because it resulted in lots of criminals being punished; someone else might think that it was a failure because there was no overall reduction in the amount of crime. You might think that schools sports policy worked because Team Little Britain won lots of medals in the Tokyo Olympics; I might think it was a failure because hardly any non-elite athletes were still taking exercise ten years after they left school.

But “whatever works” does admit the possibility that something might not work. In theory, we can look at what did happen, and say "I don't think that what you did worked".


The new American dictator said yesterday that he was in favour of torturing people because "torture works". It isn’t immediately clear what “works” means. Does it mean that if someone knows a secret they will definitely and automatically tell it to you provided you hurt them badly enough? Or does it just mean that if the goodies are doing some torturing, the baddies will stop doing so much terroristing? "If only we had been torturing people in the 1990s, the Twin Towers attack wouldn't have happened; once we started torturing people after 2001, the London bombing didn't happen. Or if it did, it would have been worse without the torture. Or it only happened because we weren't doing enough torturing. Or something."

Someone is said to have asked Auberon Waugh how a horrible person like him could possibly claim to be a Christian. "But if I wasn't a Christian" he replied "Think how much worse I would be."

A man who tells jokes for a living cited the famous “ticking bomb” thought experiment on twitter, in the following terms: 

Your baby is tied to a timebomb. 

You have the terrorist. 

He tells you you have 1 hour. 

Do you torture him to find your baby or let it die?

He got extremely cross when anyone suggested that this was a silly scenario: you wouldn’t have a single terrorist, there wouldn’t be a single piece of information that would save the victim, and you have no way of knowing if the person you are torturing is a coward (who will blurt out anything to avoid being hurt) or, a fanatic who positively wants to be hurt in order to be martyr.

I proposed a couple of alternative scenarios:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

The terrorist is a colossal pervert. 

Do you let him spend 1 hour with your 12 year old son or let the baby die?

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

You have 99 innocent people and 1 terrorist.

Do you torture all 100 of them or let the baby die?

Your baby was tied to a bomb by a Jehovah's Witness. 

Do you arrest and torture all 226,000 Jehovah's Witnesses or let the baby die?

Of the 226,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses 1% give in and scream, "I'll tell you where the baby is." 

Which of the 2260 confessions do you follow up?

There is nothing wrong with asking purely hypothetical questions; there is nothing wrong with thought experiments. "Don't be silly, I'm not on the moon" is not a very good answer to the question "If you dropped a feather and a one kilogram weight on the moon, which would hit the ground first? I suppose the ticking bomb fantasy establishes whether your objection to torture is a moral one, or a practical one: do you say "No, I wouldn't torture the guy, even if it totally would save the little'un life?" or "Yes, if in some magic way, torturing the guy would get my baby back, then I would torture him.".

But it occurred to me that the scenario we really needed to consider would be something like:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

Would you sacrifice a white goat to Aphrodite in order to bring your baby home in a golden chariot pulled by winged horses?

To which the answer is: yes, if sacrificing the goat would summons up the magic chariot, yes I would. But it wouldn’t. So it’s a silly question. 

In these scenarios, it's always a Really Bad Guy who is getting tortured; not a basically pretty harmless guy who happens to know the codes. And one cannot escape the suspicion that when someone says "torture works" they are adding, under their breath "and even if it doesn't, the really bad guy had it coming to them." Torquemada, Matthew Hopkins and Donald Trump all know in advance that Jews, women and Muslims are "baddies", and the search for heretics, witches and terrorists provides a pretext to hurt bad people.

If your baby really was tied to a time bomb, and if you really did torture a terrorist, or a suspected terrorist, or a Brazilian electrician who looked as if he might be a terrorist, and if the guy holds out under torture; or tells you that they’re on Dantooine when they’re really on Yavin… and one way or another the bomb goes off and the baby dies…

Everyone who believed in torture would continue to believe that torture worked. 

Because the baby would quite definitely still be alive. The photos of the pathetic little corpse being taken out of the burning building is FAKE NEWS produced my MAINSTREAM MEDIA which is run BY cultural Marxists who yes want the terrorists TO win.

If I saw some very powerful people actually looking at the dead baby, and saying "the baby is still alive", I would say that they were either mad or liars, and you would say that things weren't always as black and white as we Trotskyites like to pretend. You would write long think pieces in the Guardian about the interesting controversy of the exploding baby.

And years later, the story about the baby chained to the time bomb who saved by the torturing would be one of those things which everybody knows, like Alfred and the Cakes and the school that sang baa baa green street and weapons of mass destruction. Everyone would say that horrible as torture is and obviously we’re not in favour of it and it’s a great shame that we inadvertently castrated that kid whose dad had a name quite similar to the person who almost definitely knew something about an outrage that hadn’t actually happened yet...but you have to admit, torture stopped the baby from exploding.

And I'll point to the pathetic little gravestone and the autopsy report, and you'll say “Ah, still  going on about the dead baby. It’s political correctness gone mad. Fake news, fake news. Social Justice Warriors always lie.” 


Fortunately, no-one has attached any bombs to any babies. But my country is about to sacrifice its place in the world on a Quixotic whim. And it will be impossible ever to ask the question "Did Brexit work? Did it do what it was supposed to do?" 

If as expected, Theresa May lights the blue touch paper next month, then for decades to come, every media outlet but one will contain nothing but stories about how everything is rosy and wonderful: stories about factories opening, stories about people with new jobs, stories about nasty Polish restaurants being replaced with proper 1950s English cafes that sell burned steak and blue nun wine. 

And if anyone says that this isn’t true — that inflation is high, the pound is sinking, people don’t have jobs, every media outlet but one will say That’s what you would expect the remoaners to say. Why do they run this country down? Why do they feel it necessary? Don’t quote statistics at me. You can prove anything you want with statistics. Anyone can SEE the country is doing brilliantly. Except Social Justice Warriors, who always lie.” 

And if, by some chance, sanity prevails, we will have another 50 years in which people stare at big, yellow, curved bananas and say “of course, you aren’t allowed to buy curved bananas any more. It’s political correctness gone mad."

(It is just about possible to imagine the Remain camp, ten years down the line saying "well, that wasn't nearly as bad as we feared." It is impossible to imagine the Leave camp, even in the face of Armageddon, saying "We're afraid that didn't work as well as we'd hoped.")

Which, in a sense, makes life a bit easier. 

We don’t, in fact, know whether the September 11th attacks would have been averted if some CIA officers had put some black guys balls in a vice in a camp in Cuba. To know what would have happened, child? No-one is ever told that. But we still know what is moral; what is right; what is wrong.

We don't know what works, because the crazy people will see whatever they choose to see. But we know what is moral. What is right and wrong. Big people don’t hit little people. You can’t have sex with anyone without their consent. The rich help the poor. You don’t hurt other people, however much you might sometimes want to.

In a “post truth” world, that may be all there is to hold on to. 


I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Donald Trump: I may not like his policies, but he’s no different from any other right wing politician. 

But a man who said the sorts of things that Donald Trump has said would not be merely a right-wing politician. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 

You must make your choice. Either this man is genetically superior to the rest of the human race, or else he is a madman or something worse. 

You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can believe everything he says because he’s such a smart guy. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being merely a right-wing politician. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 


Mike Taylor said...

I am glad that last part has found a more permanent home than in a Facebook status.

S. Evelyn said...

This whole post is great, but that last bit elicited a terrified/terrifying cackle. That's it exactly—thanks.

JAn said...

Journalist Fred Kaplan says this in a Slate article. (

"Torture to produce a confession ('Yes, I am a terrorist') almost certainly is useless; at some point of pain, many people would confess to anything. But torture to elicit specific information (Who told you to do this? Where did the meeting take place? Who else is in your cell? What are they planning to blow up tomorrow?) sometimes will do -- clearly, has done -- the job."

This seems to be the most widespread view. Where the information is pinpoint and easily verifiable ("Where is the bomb and once you tell us we're going to check, but keep you here, and if it is in fact not there, things are going to get even worse for you.") torture is an effective strategy, but - and this is a big but, a BUT - the other part of that view is while the above situation is enormously prevalent in popular media, it's extremely rare in real life, the confession scenario is the more likely one and, as stated, torture is near useless in that scenario.

Even in my simplistic interpretation there's a swathe of grey area - let alone within your well-reasoned points - so for anyone to come out and say it just plain "works", well they're either a madman or a liar or some third thing that's like both the previous things combined and a little extra besides.

JWH said...

" The famously sane Tony Blair used to claim that it didn’t matter whether a particular policy was “left wing”, “right wing”, “conservative” or “liberal”; as Prime Minister he would do “whatever worked”.

This is, of course, bullshit."

I thought that Tony Blair's point was that there wasn't that great a difference between his aims and Tony Benn's; but that Tony Blair was relatively indifferent to how those aims were achieved whereas Tony Benn thought that the aim, although important, was secondary to the means?

Aonghus Fallon said...

Re torture: as you point out, its effectiveness, very much depends on what you are trying to achieve. Its merits as a means of extracting information are debatable. Its effectiveness as a deterrent - ie if we catch you, we will torture you - another matter entirely.

I'm not defending torture I hasten to add; just agreeing that it very much depends on your longterm objective.