A doctor’s rites

Theodore Dalrymple reveals how the choice of words in medical obituaries are important

Everyday Lies

I have reached the age, which comes to all doctors, when the first  thing I turn to in the British Medical Journal is the obituary section. The obituaries therein come in two sizes: short ones for ordinary mortals and page-length ones for those of more than usual importance: importance, these days, being measured mainly by politically correct criteria.

Recently, a page-length obituary was devoted to a once-Rhodesian doctor who had medically assisted the “liberation movement” of Zimbabwe. Needless to say, the word “liberation” was used without irony or ambiguity, for not only was the first fruit of the alleged liberation repeated massacres in Matabeleland, but the second fruit was to turn a land of immigration into a land of mass emigration, thanks to corruption and idiotic economic policies — all, of course, without any increase in individual freedom as normally construed.

In other words, the lie in the BMJ’s obituary derived from its racism, “liberation” in this context meaning only the replacement of white by black government. The so-called liberation movement was fighting for power, not for freedom: understandably no doubt, for ambitious men do not easily accept exclusion from power by virtue of an accident of birth such as race. But the wish for access to power is not the same as the wish that others be free.

The choice of words is important. Wrong words are to debate what mud is to drinking water. The word “austerity” to describe an attempt to approximate government expenditure to government income is in essence a lie, intended to encourage false associations. Note that it is a lie irrespective of whether aiming at a balanced budget is a good or a bad economic policy. It is not as if the demand for the correct use of words is new. It appears in the Analects of Confucius. Misnomers in the service of lies, then, spring eternal.

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