March 21st, 2019

Beware the weasel at election time


By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on January 10, 2019.

There are timely lessons to be found

in lexicon, semantics

Peter Heffernan

Albertans will participate in a provincial election in spring and in a federal election in fall 2019. During these times, seemingly we will become more important to our politicians as we are bombarded incessantly with messaging competing for our votes, filtered through the prism of journalists, pollsters, and voices and talking heads on radio, on TV and on YouTube channels and such, some of which sources are more proven and reliable than others and try more for truth.

Beware of hucksters, wherever they be; they abound. A word to the wise is: exercise discernment and clear thinking so as to show we, the citizenry, are not sleep-walking; will not simply be taken for granted; and are unwilling literally to hand away our vote to anyone or any party who assume they’ve got us. We will show them: a pox on algorithms of voters’ life patterns suggesting our mindlessness and our predictability, we who know in our hearts our individual uniqueness and understand our power. Persuasion’s power will be shown to be weak compared with that of our critical-thinking skills and of our collective will. The world community admires us still and is puzzled when occasionally it witnesses (even a small minority of) Canadians looking outward for examples of moral leadership, even as the world looks to Canada for guidance on how to dissipate the gloom of dark pessimism overtaking elsewhere, amid the search for scapegoats gaining momentum even here, too. As we, the informed citizenry, be and become more and better, eventually our leaders will follow us there.

We all know from experience, as philosopher Austin suggests, too (How to do things with words, 1955), that the so-called folk wisdom, “sticks and stones only can break our bones but words can never hurt us,” is inaccurate. Not only have words the power to hurt us but also the intent behind words and even the tone of words. Let’s put that bit of folk misdirection to rest.

In the context of this election year of election years, for brevity’s sake let us look at a single example from lexicon and its related science of semantics dealing with the meanings of words.

Our apologies to the weasel, that “small, long-bodied, carnivorous mammal of the family Mustelidae” (Canadian Encyclopedia). We won’t make these unsuspecting animals scapegoats; they are simply wild ones inhabiting the environment surrounding us.

However, another meaning of weasel has evolved, that of “a person who is regarded as treacherous or sneaky” (vocabulary.com). Shakespeare is credited for being the first in the English language to have used the word weasel pejoratively: “The weasel Scot comes sneaking” (Henry V, 1598) and “I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (As You Like It, 1600). Much later, Theodore Roosevelt is given this credit on our continent, for referring to the words of a political adversary, with: “That there man can do a lot of funny things with this language of ours [like a weasel, sucking the life out of it] until it don’t mean anything at all.”

Among more innocuous meanings attributed to group of weasels, we find “boogle,” “confusion,” “gang” and “pack” (www.havahart.com/weasel-facts). “Boogle” is unusual, so our site consulted explains further that one has “yet to see the word boogles used in any context except nonsensical sentences.” Pack mentality typically features such message momentum (an expression I coin, developed further in an upcoming book, which is similar in meaning to propaganda). Once the message gets rolling, it seems that, like a snowball, it is very hard to stop. If the notions that the economy is off the rails or the debt burden is burgeoning out of control or employment levels are in the tank are repeated often enough, we are witnessing message momentum. No facts required (the above examples constitute, in large measure, misinformation, though clearly there are those hurting), if only the electorate remains unwary.

Other weasel practices include using words that propel this message momentum (Duane Bratt commentary, CBC radio, Jan. 2), as with Notley is “scrambling”; hers is an “Opposition strategy” as compared with Jason Kenney’s aspiring “Premier’s strategy” positioning himself as the anti-Trudeau valiantly fighting on Alberta’s behalf; Notley is allegedly “misreading” Albertans’ collective sentiment as she tries “desperately” to have the election focus on “values versus the economy,” even as Alberta’s NDP government took a similarly intelligent decision for Alberta after 2015 as did the Harper government for Canada during the downturn of 2008, deficit financing for the common good. Beware of weasel commentary.

“Values versus the economy” is a weasel dichotomy others are feeding us; thinking, caring Albertans know that both are important (every day of our lives). Environment versus the economy is another. Hysteria of the-sky-is-falling kind versus reasoned debate is yet another.

And why is political commentary seemingly always offered by political strategists and not also by political ethicists and moral philosophers, too? Just a regular Joe, average linguist asking.

Peter Heffernan earned a PhD in Applied Linguistics (UniversitŽ Laval, 1995), with a focus on lexicon and meaning in culture and language. A professor emeritus, he retired in 2014 after 32 years with the Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge.

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21 Responses to “Beware the weasel at election time”

  1. lonestar says:

    We’re shocked Prof emeritus Hefferman after 32 years involvement studying & instructing in the art of culture and language, believes mass public voting for democracy (?) once every four years, municipally, provincially or federally makes one iota difference whatsoever to the outcomes the general population experiences.

    We suggest minimum – night course in Limnology

  2. biff says:

    hmmm. we have a gossipy, dumbed-down rag that is about as useful as the national enquirer witch hunting a minister, and long string of ucp freaks exposed as crooks, liars, haters…hmm, i can see the ucp certainly has political pedigree…

  3. Tris Pargeter says:

    To the good question at the end of another well-written piece, why DO political “strategists” dominate our political commentary instead of more thoughtful, objective, articulate or intelligent people? Anyone who loves words cringes at the lack of imagination, the blatant, repetitive use of stock phrases, bromides and boiler plate rhetoric. But above all there is the squandering of a valuable opportunity to actually communicate something really important. The bar has dropped so low that it currently brings rap “music” to mind, or mind-numbing sports commentary.
    But the answer to the question I think is that political strategists are usually competitive men who want to WIN at whatever game or sport they play, which includes the “game” of politics?
    And because current conservativism has never been more tribal or more essentially male, (as with the religious doctrine that has become synonymous with it since the hyper-religious Reform took over), and because winning is all that matters, the ends justify the means and so their tactics are the most unscrupulous, covert, unethical, and underhanded.
    The left is far more trustworthy and decent than the right. Only the right could produce a buffoon like Trump.

  4. biff says:

    indeed, seth, i also fully appreciate tris’s first paragraph.
    labeling serves nothing other than the need for the basic human brain to try and make sense of complexities as simply, seemingly efficiently, as is possible.
    there are a good many ignorant individuals of either gender and among various religions and ethnicities that identify as “right wing”/”conservative” the world over, even whereby they may see themselves as inferior and second class. the thing is, the same can be said for those that think they are “left wing”/”liberal”. perhaps ignorance and self loathing transcends sex, race, ethnicity and politics? we see and have seen many females and people from varying ethnicities and religions in public office, and in high places of big corp business and public commentary that demonstrate anyone can be a competitive, nasty, self serving, greedy, cruel, cold demagogue. the list of females with such a bent is growing, and it would be longer were it not for the fact women are only recently gaining access due to their emerging equality.
    i suggest that it is the nature of our economy – and the values it underpins – that ensures we always get the worst for “leadership”. indeed, we are conditioned to view success as power/fame/wealth; seen as weak, even pitiful, are the kind/compassionate/giving.

    • Tris Pargeter says:

      Complexities exist and stereotypes are frowned upon in light of that, I know, but I am responding to several patently false assumptions that I keep seeing trotted out. One is the false equivalency that the left and right are the same. And again, I know that many claim that in order to either appear uber-egalitarian or to swan over the top of all of it in an attempt to dominate and be above it all. I know women do all the same things, but it’s also a matter of degree.
      The current conservatives have become horrifying to me since they have become openly social conservatives, and I see the economic expertise they claim as being a trojan horse. So a lie within the big lie (I mean come on, IS there a god?!), which I absolutely detest. Truth isn’t THAT relative.
      I insist it’s one explanation for their consistently successful fundraising. Religious people need outsized affirmations regularly to shore up their creed after all. So any “god” party will do. And UCP is that in spades. Plus Kenney is more catholic than the pope, which weirdly seems fine with people here. Crazy. Check out Lonestar, whoever that is, any time on here, and tell me that what he says is trivial. Hardened Satanists? I know I assume that’s a man speaking, but I also see religion as being invented by men and for men, and controlling women obviously figures large in that. I am very sensitive to that probably because I happen to be a woman.
      Also, I am from rural Alberta and know whereof I speak.

  5. Seth Anthony says:

    Biff said:

    ——————————————————————————————————————
    labeling serves nothing other than the need for the basic human brain to try and make sense of complexities as simply, seemingly efficiently, as is possible.
    ——————————————————————————————————————
    Complexity is subjective. If one utilizes an objective and logical approach to reality (as opposed to emotional approaches), then terms like complexity and simplicity no longer exist. A good example of this is a typical theist argument that states complexity is evidence of a supernatural creator. A similar theist position argues that because certain things are currently inexplicable, then a supernatural creator must exist. Of course, these positions are utter nonsense, and no intelligent theist would ever use such arguments to defend their position.

    With that said, when discussing my beliefs at a surface level, I state my position as a soft atheist, as I see and understand the theist position (note: when I say “theism”, I’m not referring to religious man made books). God is in your mind, and not in a synagogue, church, or any other building. That wisdom is not exclusive to the one known as Jesus. The same existed long before Jesus. Jesus is just one part of the trinity (3), and coincides mathematically as the infinite PI.

    Objective theism does not reject logic, it embraces it in the name of duality (the yin yang). An absolute such as an all knowing and all powerful god does not, and cannot exist in our state of reality.

    BTW- I understand and experience lonestars position. It’s a dualistic position that acknowledges pain must exist for pleasure to exist. Pain cannot exist without pleasure. The question is, how much pain can you take to receive the reciprocal pleasure?

  6. biff says:

    tris and seth, and all in this thread for that matter- i appreciate your perspectives. thank you each for taking the time to share what you care.

  7. Seth Anthony says:

    Ok, a serious question for Tris, SS, and I guess any others that call themselves an Atheist:

    Do you experience any sort of spirituality(?).

  8. Dennis Bremner says:

    If you lie, misspeak, mis-remember when its to their personal/party political advantage to do so. Then left/right male/female are the same. If you cannot say, “sorry I made a mistake”, then you are a politiician that cannot admit he/she is human. Hence the reason ordinary folk/media jump on politicians who seek refuge in mis-speaking, mis-remembering because its all Upper Crust, I am better than you, Class 1, Total unadulterated Cover My Ass, Bullshit! and….I really think you “lower Crust are stupid and simple enough to swallow this Bullshit ” and if you don;t, I will get really indignant and declare” How darest thou”!

    Truly amazes me that politicians see themselves as superhero’s with no flaws and if a flaw is detected its best to try to bullshit your way out of it “no matter how thick the bullshit”, and even discredit your name in the process? Rather than say “sorry made a mistake”, best to be known as a liar then a politician who made a mistake, heaven forbid!
    Its why everyone of all political stripes enjoyed John Crosbie PC from Newfoundland, if caught in a lie, he would joke his way out of it and not deny the lie/fib/distortion.

  9. biff says:

    well, db, i would say that is telling it as it is. we might not always agree on solutions, but we are well aware of where many of the problems originate. and crosbie – one of the most ignorant and vile politicians the federal level has ever had…and that is saying a lot because we have witnessed more than our fair share.

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