In the Media

The Institute picks interesting stories and news items every week from the worlds of art, culture and social study and presents them in the blog. This week the stories have been chosen by Taina Cooke.
‘Mowing the lawn’ – What it means to you and what it means to a politician
Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about serious things. For politicians, it seems, talking about anything is often seriously difficult. In this week’s Guardian George Monbiot writes about the peculiarity of political rhetoric and how governments talk about human beings. According to Monbiot politicians don’t, for example, speak about ‘people’ or ‘killing’ because it would make it too difficult to do their job. Monbiot has made interesting observations about how the people in power use dehumanising language in order to detach themselves from the issues they are dealing with.
A recent example of a dehumanising euphemism was offered by Lord Freud, a minister in the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions. He was in the headlines for saying that disabled people are “not worth the full wage” and to make things even worse, according to the official parliamentary record he spoke of them as a “bulge of, effectively, stock”. Also, according to the British government, people who claim benefits live in ‘benefit units’ rather than ordinary families.
Another graphic example comes from the States where Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser Bruce Riedel used somewhat cryptic language when justifying the drone war in Pakistan. Riedel voiced: “you’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.” The director of the CIA, on the other hand, chose a different approach and instead of gardening went with medical terms when claiming that with “surgical precision” his drones “eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it”. Those operating the drones considered their victims, in turn, as ‘bug splats’.
In addition to human beings, the surrounding living world is discussed in similar terms. Nature is ‘natural capital’ or ‘green infrastructure’ whereas wildlife and habitats are ‘asset classes’ in an ‘ecosystems market’. A Norwegian health trust combined the two, people and nature, in a delightful manner when it described the patients on its waiting list as ‘biomass’. Yes, biomass, which is more commonly known as “biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms, most often referring to plants or plant-based materials”.
In Finland the language used by politicians is unfortunately not that different. Earlier this month Merja Niilola wrote an article in Yle Uutiset about the complexity of political rhetoric. She interviewed a language expert Vesa Heikkinen, who raised concerns about jargon’s effect on democracy. Heikkinen was worried about the possibility that a vague and unclear language might result in overall confusion about what is actually going on in society.On the other hand, Heikkinen warns about the risk of taking rhetorics too far in the opposite direction. The rising populist movement has introduced us to a new kind of political language, that of pseudo frankness and honesty. As intriguing and fresh as this type of expression might at first seem, in reality it often oversimplifies complex issues.

Yet again, the key seems to be finding the famous middle ground. Using the correct terms when talking about human beings, nature, warfare and killing is crucial not only in order for the public to know what is going on but also for the politicians’ themselves. No citizen wants to be represented by an MP who escapes moral responsibility by denying the existence of living things. Also, oversimplifying is effectively undervaluing the public’s own intellectual capability and hence, shouldn’t be favoured. Let’s not talk about bad elite and good poor but please, please let’s not talk about biomass or mowing the lawn either.

The risky life of a two-wheeler

Bike thieves have it too easy. Hundreds and hundreds of unguarded bicycle racks offer an all-you-can-eat buffet for these nasty, bike-hungry criminals. Luckily, however, there is a new and simple way to track stolen bikes and control the skunks’ appetite.

On Check That Bike website you can in many cases make sure that a second-hand bike you’re planning to buy is not of stolen origin. The site has a vast database of stolen bicycle frame numbers which allows the victims and potential buyers to cross check their data. When more and more data on bicycle crimes is open the theft hopefully decreases as criminals will find it more difficult to sell on the stolen bikes. The site depends heavily on open data and freedom of information request.
Making it more difficult for bike thieves to steal our two-wheeled friends is very much necessary, especially if you happen to live in Oxford, Cambridge or South East London where the bike theft rates are the highest in the country. According to The Telegraph these somewhat surprising locations are the biggest black holes for our green means of transportation. Checking ‘your’ new bike’s origin might lead to a happy reunion of two old friends and an unhappy end for the thief. Well worth it, I’d say.
P.S. On a positive note, it seems that London’s famous Boris bikes do not attract criminals. Since the scheme launched about four years ago, just 27 bikes out of a total of 11,000 have been reported stolen. That is an extremely low number, especially if you compare it to the annual 1,200 thefts of public Vélib’ bikes in Paris.

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