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

George Orwell, instructing us on language. Below: Julius Caesar.

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 falsely distinguishing between “police” and “civilians” in speech and writing, and tell the media that we expect the same from them.

This post, which represents one of the bees in David Climenhaga’s bonnet, also appears on rabble.ca.

5 Comments on "Corrupt language corrupts minds: police are civilians, under the control of civilians"

  1. k.w.m says:

    Well said Mr.Chimenhaga, there is no reason for things to have gone this far: A corruption of Democracy across this Nation.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent piece.

    The symbolism of the uniform and how the message has changed is quite astounding. A few years ago, under Harris I believe, the OPP changed their uniform to include a Southern state Trooper Stetson. Who the hell decided that the OPP should look like that? Ever see in the "Heat of the Night?" What cop would aspire to look like one of George Wallace's boys putting colored people in their place, forcibly?

    Terrible meaning.

    And the Star Wars stormtrooper full battlegear changes the mentality of the person wearing it, I am sure.

    p2p

  3. jerrymacgp says:

    Although I share your concern about the confusion of the term "civilian" when used to distinguish non-police members from police members, I think expressing concern about the use of a uniform is stretching the point. From the day that Sir Robert Peel created the first civil police force in London, England, back in the early 19th century (it is from Sir Robert that we get the term "bobby" to describe a London police constable), they have worn uniforms of some sort to distinguish them from the rest of the populace. Indeed, it was the copper buttons on the uniform coats of early police forces that led to the nickname "copper" or "cop" for a police officer.

    That said, I agree that police are indeed civilians. Just ask anybody in the military. On the other hand, many people who work in uniformed public services (police, firefighters, EMS workers, health care providers) occasionally refer to members of the population they serve as "civilians", especially in workplace conversations amongst themselves. This more informal use of the term is not technically correct, but it is used nevertheless. Dictionaries often debate whether to define words as they ought to be used or as they are actually used; Oxford tends towards the latter philosophy.

    I think the issue, while somewhat concerning, can be overstated. The key issue with the G-20 protests is that the police were not given guidance to establish a clear line between personal injury and property damage, for which there should have been zero tolerance and immediate arrests; and non-violent protest, no matter how rude and disrespectful, which should have been allowed to proceed unmolested.

  4. Brian Dell says:

    A foreigner visiting RCMP Academy, Depot Division in Regina to observe the training and discipline of cadets would never guess that it wasn't the Royal Military College were it not for "Police" written on the occasional sign.

    I attended a graduation ceremony ceremony there in the summer with some military men and the comment, "they drill better than we do" was common.

  5. MJO says:

    Out of curiosity, do you know when the "police" part was included in the dictionary? I couldn't find good information.

    This site claims the "non-military" use itself first came about in 1829, but doesn't go further:

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=civilian

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