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Corrupt language corrupts minds: police are civilians, under the control of civilians

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George Orwell

George Orwell famously observed that, "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

If you want to see this principle in action, just read the coverage of the G20 police riot in Toronto last June.

Here is just one passage from one of Rosie DiManno's excellent series of Toronto Star columns about the disgraceful conduct of Toronto's militarized city police and the continuing refusal of that city's police chief to do his sworn duty and uphold the law.

"The ghastly scenes of cops tackling peaceful demonstrators on the Legislature grounds on June 26 do not foster confidence," Ms. DiManno wrote. "That melee -- batons battering, feet stomping, civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position -- was obviously the crescendo note of a lurid police action opera. Yet the cacophony of the G20 fiasco continues to reverberate these past six months."

Most of us, reading this passage, likely will not see anything wrong with it other than in the actions of the so-called police it describes. But that is because, as Orwell suggested would happen, our thoughts have been corrupted by the way our language is used daily.

I refer specifically to the phrase "civilians curled up on the ground in the fetal position."

And who was beating these civilians, pray? Other civilians, that’s who!

Let us consider the important proper distinction that the media, police and many of the rest of us nowadays fail to make between the terms "civilian" and … what exactly? Well, in civil society -- using that term in its technical sense -- the distinction is between "civilian" and "military."

This would have been obvious to any minimally educated person only a generation or two ago.

We crossed the Rubicon on this troubling usage about two decades ago -- an appropriate enough metaphor, as it happens, as it refers to the moment when Julius Caesar's army crossed the traditional border into the constitutionally protected environs of Rome where no one was supposed to be able to command a military force on pain of death.

The traditional view of Caesar's action is that, when he got away with it, it spelled the end of the Roman Republic.

This happened in North America -- first in the United States, of course -- when civilian police departments began to think of themselves as militarized occupation forces, there not to enforce the law but to exert the will of the powerful. Soon after, many police began to make a distinction in their jargon between themselves and "civilians."

This was quickly picked up by police reporters -- that most toadying class of journalist -- and now it has "officially" entered the language. At least, it is official enough to satisfy the editors of the Canadian Press, and worse, of the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Thus, states the latter: "civilian … a person not in the armed forces or the police force. …" (Emphasis added.)

This is a corruption, and a corrupting corruption, since the simple fact is that municipal police are civilians, charged only with enforcing the law, subject themselves to the rule of law, and properly described as public servants.

If they police are not our servants, bound to the law as we all are, then there is no law. To paraphrase an old Irish song, if being Canadian means we’re guilty, then we’re guilty one and all!

This seems to be the position of the Canadian government. It has always been the position of the Alberta government, whence spring Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his anti-democratic disciples. And now it is becoming the position of other governments in the newly Albertanized parts of Canada, such as metropolitan Toronto.

It is also clearly, as cited above, the position taken by our corrupted lexicographers.

Symbols can be corrupting too, of course, and it could be argued we started down this particular unhappy garden path long ago, when we began to dress our police officers in military uniforms. (This became a particularly Canadian fault at an unusually early point in our national history when we had to disguise a cavalry regiment, complete with campaign hats and yellow-striped jodhpurs, as a "mounted police force" to keep our envious neighbours both from grasping too much and from reacting with too much hostility. Arguably, however, this strategy worked in a geopolitical sense, and we are all the better for it.)

Moreover, since most Canadians (including an astonishingly large number of members of the armed forces) are almost perfectly innocent of the meaning of military symbolism, much of the corrupting power of military-style uniforms on civilian police officers was soon lost, at least until our police forces adopted the American practice of wearing combat fatigues complete with boots and tin helmets.

Clearly this latter practice should be stopped at once, especially for officers on routine patrol. Civilian police should wear uniforms that clearly identify them as the civilian public servants that they are -- models might be found in the work-related attire worn by nurses, postal delivery personnel and police officers in other countries whose governments are more committed to democratic values than ours.

That said, the symbolism of the language we use is in many ways more powerful, if only because it is less obvious and thus more insidious.

As a consequence, the simplest place for all of us to start recalibrating our perception of our civilian police as something other than a military occupation force in the service of an alien power, is simply by refusing to participate in this corruption of our language.

In other words, let's each of us stop this dangerous and anti-democratic practice of falsly distinguishing between "police" and "civilians" in speech and writing, and tell the media that we expect the same from them.

This post, which indulges one of the bees in David Climenhaga's bonnet, also appears on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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