I sometimes fear that we will need to radically rewrite our dictionaries in the near future as so many of our words are dropping their old, negative definitions for new, positive and winsome meanings. It is not, for example, unusual to hear a phrase such as “go on, indulge yourself, you deserve it” on an advert on the television. The modern use of indulge is the components of luxury or tolerance. Any former ideas of postponement of a debt or deferment of a sin has largely been lost. Similarly words such as “pride“, which was previously something to be avoided, as one of the seven deadly sins, are now seen as positive attributes to one’s character.
Common words such as health can come to mean their opposite when allied with the word “mental”. It is not unusual to hear he suffered with “mental health” (instead of illness) and “we are all affected by mental health” (When unfortunately this is not the case and many of us suffer with mental illness). I fear the stigma associated with mental illness is so great that people are even fearful of saying the word and will try all forms of verbal gymnastics to avoid it.
It is to be expected that words change their meaning over time as fashions and social mores change. In an increasingly secular world it is not surprising that many words which previously had a religious connotation are now pressed into service for more profane uses. As our technology and lives change we need words to communicate our new circumstances and it makes sense to bring older antiquated words out of retirement and disuse, and dust them off, before pressing them into use in contemporary conversations. Although I am a bit of a pedant, and I do like the original meaning of words recalled, I am happy to see drifts and changes in the language allowing us to communicate freely. I would not wish to think that words should be preserved in aspic as this is a sure route to the demise of conversation and understanding.
However, there are some words which are so important in the meaning they bestow that they should only be misused with great care. In his excellent novel ‘1984’ George Orwell reminded us of the power of words, and in particular the power of words when misused to entrap and imprison us. Big Brother altered the meanings many words, through the development of Newspeak , as they were aware this was a source of political power. Nowadays, it seems that we are rapidly learning Newspeak and words such as sexcrime and crimethink seem very prescient.
Two such words are ‘Shame’ and the related word ‘Guilty’. Shame used to mean the painful emotion we felt when we were aware that we had not lived up to our standards, when we experienced feelings of guilt or disgrace because we had behaved badly and to a level below the standards to which we hold ourselves. Shame is increasing being used as a verb meaning to make someone feel ashamed and often tagged onto a preceding word – fat shaming, slut shaming, body shaming, and so on. However, it is often the case that it was not shame that was sought but rather advice which was offered. It is no great surprise that the commonest people responsible for fat shaming are family members and doctors, people who have a vested interest in aiding someone who is obese or overweight and are least likely to wish to insult or distress them. People are not trying to shame someone but rather to advise or counsel them. It is true that we wish to avoid or get rid of shame, but not by banning the attribution, but rather by living and behaving in such a way that we do not feel ashamed by our actions.
This current strategy seeks to put the distress on the person who notices the sub-standard behaviour rather then on the person who has fallen short of their own standards. If I am happy with my behaviour and feel it accords with my view of what is right and proper, it does not matter one iota how you criticise me, I will feel no shame. I can only feel shame when I fall below my expectations not yours. I can only feel shame when I agree I am in the wrong, if I disagree I feel wronged or misunderstood not ashamed. You cannot shame me unless I share your thought that I have done something wrong.
‘Guilty‘, however, is the word being treated in the most egregious manner. In our connected and on-line world it has almost come to be synonymous with ‘accused’ . Previously there was a chain of events – an accusation was made, an assessment of the facts undertaken, all parties explained their actions and finally, after consideration, someone was either found “Guilty” or remained Innocent. This is what would be loosely called “due process“. To be guilty of some wrong deed is to be found responsible and culpable and is a major step, a step all civilised societies have found should only be taken after due process.
The nightmare of living in states where an accusation is all that is required to make one guilty is well known and is the hallmark of the totalitarian and barbarian. Over the millennia we, as a species, have learnt that it is vital that people should have the presumption of innocence and we should only call people ‘Guilty’ after a rigorous and fair examination of the fact. Too often today, in cases of child abuse or sexual abuse, people are quick to name someone as Guilty before due process has been had. On social media and the internet many are happy to condemn people as guilty without an exploration of the facts. Campaigns are often mounted to shout the word “Guilty” to the world before any trial of the evidence has taken place. The campaigns accuse and the media condemns before any justice can be obtained.
This often occurs in the most heinous of accusations (child abuse, rape, etc) but it is because these are the most disgusting and dreadful acts that it is especially important to ensure due process. While we must do everything possible to find those that commit these acts, hold them culpable, and punish them, we must be careful that we do not punish the innocent. To label an innocent party guilty of acts such as these is a crime on a par of severity with the acts themselves. Although it may be difficult to swallow, especially at times when the desire for revenge is high, but Blackstone’s Formulation is a true foundation for a safe and civilised society :-
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“
When we interfere with this viewpoint we place everyone in danger. No-one would be able to sleep at night if all it took to become guilty was that someone accused you. What about the snubbed friend, the disgruntled employee, the querulous neighbour ? Our innocence is a precious thing and should not be able to be tarnished without very good cause.