Around the time Macbeth was written in 1606 the topic of equivocation was rife in England. Equivocation was the business of telling half-truths or hidden lies to escape earthly and celestial punishment. As a Catholic in Protestant England you could deny you were harbouring a priest by saying something like “A priest lyeth not in my house” which in your mind meant he was not telling untruths in your house, or you could say of someone “he came not this way” whilst secretly pointing in another direction. Shakespeare evokes the business of equivocation, you might remember, in the Porter’s speech in Macbeth.
We see equivocation at large today in the bogus statement “I have no recollection of that”, which is not a denial, not perjury. But you also see it massively in various trotted-out boasts of the modern world. Affordable homes, for example. The other day I saw a recognition of this in the poster emblazoned on a building with the term Genuinely affordable homes, a wink to the equivocations of legalese. We know affordable homes aren’t really affordable. I also saw, in an extension of this, on the the side of a recycling lorry We really do recycle, the emphasis countering the claims of bogus recycling that have been in the press in recent months (only yesterday I heard the story of British plastic recycled materials being found dumped in Turkey). In a word, language is now needing to re-claim its own truth from equivocation. Unfortunately, the equivocators of today are no longer hung, drawn and quartered.
Genuinely affordable homes
The Labour party had a poor performance in regional elections this week, many of their traditional strongholds in the north, the so-called red wall, turning Conservative blue. Many commentators agree that their problem is not so much policy as connection with voters, a personality deficit. The party has become the party of metropolitan elite Guardian readers and the factory worker in Durham and the supermarket checkout worker in Manchester don’t feel the link anymore. What they also don’t hear is the vocabulary. The lexis has shifted. When a politician talks about calling out or shouting out even I feel the disconnect; toxic is another one of those modern words that alienate and even that word oversight now apparently means supervision and not what it used to mean which was something that you neglected to notice. When you rob a person of their words you rob them of their past. The new lexis does not connect with the traditional working class who might not read The Guardian. What the party needs is some clever people who are not locked into the maze of buzz words of the modern left. Intended to free you, in the end these words will just create a new prison.
A few weeks ago amidst all the Covid regulations there was a sudden overnight frost. The next morning the roads had been gritted, I noted as I ventured out that morning. This is just one example of how the cogs of society turn to keep us safe. Since the Enlightenment or before we have incrementally built up the safety mechanisms that have now become so transparent that we take them for granted. This week i was reading about the probable cause of Napoleon’s death on the island of St Helena. Napoleon was obsessed by a particular tincture of green with which he decorated the house he lived in when on the island. At his death six years from having taken up residence there his body was riddled with decay caused by this particular type of paint. It was noted that the servants who lived and worked in the house with him were also afflicted by the poisoning. Every advance we make has to be questioned, checked, made safe by an extensive system of controls, so that we don’t suffer from some random side-effect that had not been factored in. Think electricity, gas, plumbing, sewers, broadband, roads, railways, planes, everything. The Enlightenment and its assumptions help our world to function safely. You believe when you switch the light on that light will come forth with no explosions. Why would you believe that a vaccine has not undergone the same checks? Why would you not believe that our complex society could not unmask a fake moon landing? How do you think you remain safe when you turn the gas on?