On Being Divided by a Common Language: The Semantics of Scapegoating

If a person is told by another, who stands in some kind of authority over them, that they ‘needn’t be doing’ something they are doing, is the person who receives this information to interpret it as an instruction to cease what they are being informed they needn’t be doing?

On the American side of the Pond, it would seem, the statement is to be interpreted so; on the British side, apparently not.

Thus, in America, George Zimmerman currently awaits trial in a Florida jail on a murder charge for having fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin. This is because a state attorney has chosen to interpret as an instruction the statement “We don’t need you to do that’ made to Zimmerman by the police dispatcher whom he had just told he was following Martin, after he called 911  to report Martin’s suspicious behavior.

By allegedly continuing to pursue Martin, something that Zimmerman denies, the state prosecutor claims that Zimmerman forfeited his right to plead  self defense under Florida’s controversial ‘stand you ground’ law.

By contrast, in Britain, those who yesterday claimed the scalps of Barclays chief executive and chief operating officer, in the scandal currently engulfing the bank over the rigging of interest rates, maintain that the latter should not have interpreted as an instruction a statement made to the bank at the height of the banking crisis in October 2008 by a senior Bank of England official, that it was the view of ‘senior’ figures within Whitehall that: ‘it did not need always need to be the case that we [Barclays] appeared as high as we have recently.’

Jerry del Missier, the bank’s just resigned chief operating officer whom its just-resigned chief executive Bob Diamond informed of what the Bank of England official had told the bank, interpreted the statement as an indirect instruction from the British government to lower the bank’s reported inter-bank borrowing rates to preserve confidence in its solvency, as well as to lower the country’s overall Libor rate.

The Bank of England denies this was how the statement had been intended, and Britain now has another government which, for reasons of expediency, is inclined to join in the current spate of bank-bashing in the UK.

It seems that the semantics of scapegoating differ radically on either side of the Atlantic. In the UK, so it seems, people are to be sanctioned for interpreting statements, delivered in the non-imperative mood, in precisely the way people in the United States are to be sanctioned for not so interpreting.

Talk about being divided by a common language.

At least the two Anglophonic nations are united by a seeming common willingness on the part of those in authority there to perpetrate injustices against their citizens in the supposed name of truth and probity.

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society which he joined in 2004 and where he worked full-time as a senior research fellow for five years, after leaving academia following a thirty year career teaching Philosophy at various British universities. Professor Conway's numerous publications include A Farewell to Marx; Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal; Free Market Feminism; The Rediscovery of Wisdom; In Defence of the Realm; A Nation of Immigrants? A Brief Demographic History of Britain; and Liberal Education and the National Curriculum.

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Comments

  1. Brett Bellmore says

    Strictly speaking, even if this is how the phrase is interpreted coming from somebody in a position of authority, (And it can be.) police dispatchers are not in a position of authority over private citizens in the US. You’re perfectly free to ignore anything they say, at best they could be considered to be giving you advice, not orders.

  2. Richard Schweitzer says

    These are not new circumstances:

    Back in the late 60s and into the 70′s we constantly had to make reference in the field of Reinsurance to the fact that we used the same words and often the same phrases to speak two different languages.

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