Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Anarchy in the UK

The 500,000-strong protests against the government's crippling cuts programme went ahead peacefully on Saturday, but to read the mainstream media you would have thought that the day was marked by an orgy of violence and destruction. Approximately 0.04% of those on the march were engaged in some sort of trouble, and even then 140 of the arrests have been for the outrageous crime of aggravated trespass, for sitting in a shop peacefully.

Chief among the media's targets are protesters whom they term "anarchists". In today's Evening Standard, the columnist Sam Leith takes issue with the label "anarchist" as a catch-all term of abuse for any violent protester. Radio 4's Today programme discussed the philosophy and political strands of anarchism earlier in the day too, from class war anarchism through to pacifist, pastoral anarchism.

One of Leith's more serious points is that the word "anarchist"  has become "an all-purpose boo-word for those who protest in ways we don't consider acceptable; and, cripplingly, a way of muddying and ignoring the actual political positions of the quarter of a million people who marched peacefully on Saturday" and it's a good one to make.

The word is being chucked around with little thought for what it really means and that's not very helpful. It seems to be an example of semantic broadening, where the label itself has expanded to cover an increasing range of connotations - thuggish behaviour, disorder, chaos - when the word's original denotation means none of those things.

Even more bizarre is the increasing obsession with what these "anarchists" will do when the royal wedding is on. Will they turn up and kick over old ladies' tables and upset tea urns at the street parties that literally...err... tens of people will be holding? Will they sip from tins of Special Brew and sneer as the happy couple tie the knot? What sick filth will these anarchists come up with next?

Whatever your views on violent protest and the need to oppose government cuts  - and personally I don't think smashing up shop windows and fighting with the police down side streets is a particularly clever or successful way of gaining support for the cause - the whole way in which language is used to represent protests and all those involved has got to be worthy of a bit of extra scrutiny, particularly when the media coverage of half a million marchers gets relegated to the inside pages while the actions of (at most) a couple of hundred people make the front page and set the news agenda.

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