Our son of a bitch

The headline of Doug Beattie’s article in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday illustrates how sloppy language and sloppy logic hinder rather than help the process of understanding. Leave aside the article itself for now; one sentence in the headline alone (“Republicans weren’t victims, they were victim-makers”) contains a prime example of both.

Firstly, the sloppy language of “Republicans” fails to distinguish between the Provisional IRA and those people who never picked up a gun but would still regard themselves as Republican. In the same vein, when people blame “Unionists” for the actions of Unionist politicians or “Brits” for the actions of the British Government, it can be argued that a commonly understood shorthand is being used – but in Northern Ireland the use of imprecise language is an open invitation to misunderstanding that many will enthusiastically accept.

This is a common ambiguity in the English language, the infamously context-dependent bare plural. When a statement is made about “Republicans” it can be read as “particular Republicans”, a few hundred members of the PIRA, but it could also be taken to mean “all Republicans”, a two-digit percentage of the electorate. It is probably safe to say that Beattie (or his subeditor) intended the former, and it is also probably safe to say that a significant percentage of actual Republicans took the other meaning.

Secondly, the sloppy logic of the false dichotomy implies that one cannot be both a victim and a victim-maker. It should not take much effort to think up an endless list of counterexamples. One can be both a victim and a perpetrator of violence, and indeed being a victim of violence can encourage one to subsequently become a perpetrator. This is not rocket science, but it is conveniently forgotten in the heat of argument.

But all this is just one example of excessive generalisation, a common rhetorical flourish that produces pithy soundbites but poor analysis. And when it is used like this to apportion blame upon others, the danger is that instead of singling out the guilty one has lumped the guilty in with the innocent.

“Unionist”, “Nationalist”, “Republican”, “British”, “Irish”… each one of these terms is not just an abstract category, but an identity that is clung to by hundreds of thousands of people each. When you apportion blame to hundreds of thousands of people in one sweeping statement the instinctive reaction is not going to be that obviously you only meant to blame some of us. Guilty and innocent are treated alike, blurring rather than sharpening the moral lines.

As the apocryphal Roosevelt quote goes, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Under fire, identity trumps all. And so people who may not otherwise have much in common find themselves standing side by side. If the intent was to drive a wedge between guilty and innocent, the exact opposite has now been achieved. “Brits out!” may not have been intended to mean everyone who identifies as British should be driven into the sea, but that’s how it was understood, and it only strengthened the Unionist British identity. Every troubles-era Unionist should know this in their bones, but too often an equally thoughtless, sweeping soundbite makes its way back across the barricade and galvanises the other side.

With every general statement blaming Unionists for discrimination, Republicans for terrorism, Brits for state brutality, the separate identities of Northern Ireland are wound more tightly in shared indignation, and actively driven apart.

Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.

Twitter: @andrewgdotcom