Saturday, March 26, 2005

Carlton Weasels Away

Mike Carlton, in his column Co-operation is almost the word has this to say:

The media straighteners and punishers who push the Howard Government's appalling refugee policies tend to foam at the mouth when you call the Baxter immigration detention centre a concentration camp... But this is precisely what it is, as any dictionary will confirm. The Macquarie Dictionary: "Concentration camp, n, a guarded enclosure for the detention or imprisonment of political prisoners, racial minority groups, refugees, etc ..." That is Baxter to the letter. The Macquarie goes on to give the example of the Nazi camps, but I have no intention of playing that card. It is enough to say, this Easter, that Baxter, in all its inhumanity, is a black stain upon a supposedly civilised society.

My objection to Carlton's misuse of the expression 'concentration camp' has nothing to do with "the Howard Government's... etc... etc". My objection is based on quite a different consideration - precision in language and the descriptive power of important concepts. Carlton's Weasel Word usage of 'concentration camp' is a clear example of a dysphemism. That is, corruption of a useful negative term by a slack-jawed media yokel who cares nothing for precision in using the tools of his craft. His actions reduce the potency of this critically important term by applying it without discrimination.

In a pre-emptive attempt to legitimise his weasel-usage, Carlton claims that "any dictionary will confirm" his interpretation. Presuming for the sake of argument that he is not clairvoyant, and that he has not read a very large number of dictionaries to confirm his statement, he is making a false claim. The form of the false claim is a common one - False Attribution, compounded by Stacking the Deck.

It is easy to disprove Carlton's claim - only one instance which does not confirm his unequivocal generalisation is required. To this end, I consulted an obscure and little-known dictionary which I happened to discover in an out of the way bookshop in a dark alley in Sardinia. Some readers may not have heard of it - Carlton certainly hasn't. It is called the Oxford Dictionary of English. The ODE defines 'concentration camp' in the following terms: "place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area... sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution... strongly associated with... the Nazis in Germany". In fact, the ODE (OED) definition is not miles away from the Macquarie. Read the whole Macquarie entry, and you will realise that Carlton is also stacking the deck by concealing parts of the Macquarie entry which do not support his case for slipshod and illiterate usage.

Way to go Mike... stealing 'concentration camp' so we no longer have a succinct, unambiguous descriptor for an actual concentration camp. May I suggest that in future you use the False Analogy, "...detention centres are just like concentration camps" rather than the dysphemism, "...detention camps are concentration camps". A subtle distinction, and not entirely justifiable, but illiterate columnists should begin with baby steps, and who knows, one day one of your columns may actually contain valuable information.