‘SEMANTICS’ is an interesting word. So are ‘rhetoric’ and ‘obfuscation’.
Semantics is related to the interpretation of words. If someone is being semantic they are insisting upon the exact meaning of a word or phrase.
Fundamentalist religious groups are often pre-occupied with semantics and the interpretations of the texts of their religion, like the bible and the koran.
The fundamentalist groups in the middle-east are using this device to justify their barbarity, just like the Christians did during the inquisitions in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries.
The legal system and the interpretation of legislation today is largely a matter of semantics.
At a more personal level we all indulge in semantics on a daily basis. We might refer to someone as bad or dishonest. If we are particularly enthusiastic we will not allow for any measurement of degree in our assessments.
Yet the fact is most people have elements of bad and good mixed into their characters. Given the right circumstances you can lead ‘good’ people to do terrible things. Equally, ‘bad’ people often do good things.
I was reminded of this fact while reading the comments following upon an article about Belden Namah’s birthday.
Namah, to my mind, is a classic case of the conflicted nature of the human character. In all likelihood he acquired his wealth through unscrupulous means, ipso facto he must be a bad man.
Yet during the Sandline Affair he acted honourably with PNG’s future close to his heart. More recently he is credited with keeping the government on their toes from the opposition benches in parliament.
Namah’s current arch foe, Peter O’Neill, is another example of a conflicted character. On the one hand he is allegedly doing shonky deals with lawyers and on the other he is trying to introduce effective health and educational reforms.
How should these people be regarded? Are they good or bad or a bit of both? If the latter is the case how can they be trusted?
On a much larger scale how does semantics relate to Papua New Guinea? Some people are saying it is already a ‘failed’ state. If you are into semantics it is either failed or not failed, it can’t be both. Yet we all know it can.
A keen observer will be able to tell you which bits are failed and which bits are still working reasonably well. PNG is, after all, only human.
This is where ‘rhetoric’ and ‘obfuscation’ come into play. Rhetoric is language designed to impress and is usually overblown and ultimately meaningless. Rhetoric is used to disguise or obscure the real situation or make something sound better or worse that it really is.
In the political arena ‘jargon’ and ‘slogans’ are handy tools for the rhetorician. Don Watson, an Australian writer, refers to them as ‘weasel’ words.
Public servants are good at it, too. They invent whole new languages for the purpose.
Papua New Guinean public servants are especially good at it and so are the consultants they employ or have thrust upon them by aid agencies. They are particularly adept at making the improbable sound possible.
A friend of mine was telling me about a meeting he recently attended run by the Coffee Marketing Board in PNG. The powerpoint presentations were running hot with statistics and projections for the coming couple of years. It was all good, the prices were up and exports were set to multiply.
The only problem was that the figures were based on things that were not actually happening and which were highly unlikely to happen.
No one is planting new coffee trees and even if they were a coffee bush takes three years to come to maturity, well beyond the projections being presented. In reality the growers are still harvesting trees planted fifty years ago and have no intention of doing otherwise.
No matter, the statistics were impressive and everyone was patting themselves on the back. It was all rhetoric however, overblown and meaningless.
Yet so many things in PNG (and Australia) are run this way.
Are the diligent consultants who produce and presumably believe this stuff bad people for misleading everyone? I guess the answer to that is probably. But they are probably also good people who go home and kiss their loving wife and play with their adorable kids.
There is an old adage: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing (or words to that effect). Engaging in semantics, rhetoric and obfuscation is, I believe, tantamount to doing nothing and the people who do it know exactly what they are doing.