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November 30, 2010

Murder in Yeovil: Theodore Dalrymple explains why the correct use of language is the key to restoring health to our polity

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple explains why the correct use of language is the key to restoring broken Britain to vigorous good health.

The other week, I drew attention to a murder-trial taking place in Bristol, as reported in the Western Gazette. This week's edition of that journal carries further instructive reports of the trial. The prosecution, remember, alleges that a group of people kidnapped, bound, stripped naked, brutally assaulted and left dying in a cold and muddy field a man called Glynn Rowlands, whom they, the accused, believed had stolen gold from them, and upon whom they therefore wanted to wreak revenge.

One of the accused wrote a letter to the police while he was on remand in which he said, inter alia, that:

Ben [one of his co-accused] started tying up his [the victim's] arms and legs. Steve [another of the co-accused] picked up a brick and let it go in his face.
Let it go in his face? Do bricks, then, fly spontaneously into people's faces like poltergeists, unless diverted from their course? Why did the young man not write that Steve threw, or smashed, the brick into the man's face? Where knives go in and guns go off, bricks are let go in faces. As one murderer put it to me,
A fight broke out, a gun arrived, I accidentally took it and it went off.
The prosecutor in this case might have accepted such an account of the events. I was a little surprised by the way he tended to put things in his address to the jury.

For example,

Glynn Rowlands had fallen into an ugly dispute with [the accused].
By the force of what social (or antisocial) gravity does one "fall into" ugly disputes? Of course, it is possible that the accused picked a quarrel with the victim completely at random: some people behave like that, though it is unlikely in this case, and in fact the prosecutor did not believe it. But an ugly dispute? One does not fall into ugly disputes as into cunningly-disguised elephant-traps.

The dispute having been duly fallen into, however,

Retribution was required.
But required by whom or by what? By the laws of the universe? Clearly the prosecutor meant by the accused; but then why not say "The accused sought retribution"?

It seems that the prosecutor accepted that the deceased had, in fact, stolen the gold as believed by the family of some of the accused. The victim alleged that the accused had abducted him a week before they killed him and stabbed him a number of times in the arms and legs, without the intention of killing him. While in hospital for treatment of his wounds

he was to tell good friends who went to see him in hospital the reality of how gold was missing…
How gold was missing? Did it go missing spontaneously, of its own accord and volition? If so, we live in a world in which inanimacy is a precondition of volition. Or did someone take the gold? If so, why not say so? Why the passive construction? Since the prosecutor soon went on to say that Rowlands "returned nothing", he clearly believed that Rowlands had stolen the gold. Why did he not say "Rowlands confessed to stealing the gold"?

"It was to get worse", continued the prosecutor (not, incidentally, referring to his own speech). What was to get worse? The situation, that presumably acted like a demiurge independent of how the participants in it acted? What the prosecutor meant was that the accused allegedly behaved more and more threateningly towards the victim until they actually killed him. He continued:

At 3.17 pm on Thursday, December 3, hours before Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life…
Glynn Rowlands was to lose his life? In a fit of carelessness, perhaps, in the way that I sometimes mislay my keys because I am preoccupied by something else? Or by the spontaneous development of a head injury and multiple fractures of the ribs, as some - including Dickens - once thought that people could die by spontaneous combustion? Someone, whether the accused or others, killed Glynn Rowalnds.

No doubt we all sometimes use passive locutions where we should use active ones. I am certainly not guiltless in this matter, far from it. But it almost seems as if the prosecutor was trying to turn the murder into a natural catastrophe - the city was destroyed by an earthquake, the village was engulfed by volcanic lava - rather than a human drama in which some person or persons acted with dreadful ferocity.

Does the use of passive locutions matter? I suspect that it does. By use of them, we reduce the role of consciousness and decision-making in human affairs.

In the same issue of the paper, we learn of three people who went shoplifting in the main shopping street of Yeovil. Two of them, a brother and sister, went into Marks and Spencer and removed £941 worth of clothes without paying for them. Store detectives gave chase, and soon immobilised the brother. The sister managed to get into a getaway car driven by a confederate.

He drove the car, dragging a store detective who was trying to hang on to it. He also drove the car over a pedestrian's foot. He stopped the car some way away, ran off and evaded capture. The sister then took the wheel and drove off, but the police later stopped her.

The facts were not in dispute. The lawyer defending the sister, however, said in mitigation that she was a paranoid schizophrenic. The implication of this, presumably, was that she was not fully responsible for her own actions, two of the symptoms of schizophrenia being slowed thought and reduced powers of initiative. If she was a paranoid schizophrenic, therefore, she seems to have been a successfully-treated one.

On the evidence presented here, there was no possible connection between her mental illness and her behaviour; but if there had been, it would, logically-speaking, have had the direst penological implications for her. Assuming her condition to be incurable, it would mean that she was a very dangerous person who ought to be kept under some kind of preventive detention to avoid repetition.

It is not only in the West Country that there is a lack of clear thought about human agency. In The Guardian the following day, there was a horrible story about vulnerable girls who "were groomed and raped by a gang of men". In the story is the following statement:

There were critical delays [by Social Services] getting out-of-city placements for [two of the girls] and both ended up with criminal convictions - treated as offenders rather than as victims.
But the categories of victim and offender are not mutually exclusive. Being a victim does not give one a carte blanche to offend, for everyone can claim to have been a victim in some respect or other, and there is in any case no one-to-one correspondence between victimisation and offending. Compassion requires that we extend understanding to people who have suffered, but not that we turn them into inanimate objects of whom we expect nothing by way of self-control. That way crime-waves lie.

More and more I come to the Confucian view that correct use of language is the key if we would restore health to the polity.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor.

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Dr Dalrymple: "For example, Glynn Rowlands had fallen into an ugly dispute with [the accused]. By the force of what social (or antisocial) gravity does one "fall into" ugly disputes?"

I am reminded of a similar instance from the BBC recently, speaking of the repeated criminal acts of a heroin addict (living entirely on benefits in a flat provided for him). Shouldn't more help be available, the report argued, for such a man who "found himself" in such a position?

Posted by: nick ray at December 1, 2010 11:36 AM

If correctness of language use (in particular the avoidance of the passive) is the issue, can we start by the correct use of the word "passive"? Neither of the supposed instances of passive construction referred to in this article is in fact passive. Impersonal, perhaps, which is Dalrymple's point; but not passive.

Posted by: David at December 5, 2010 09:26 PM

"Being a victim does not give one a carte blanche to offend, for everyone can claim to have been a victim in some respect or other, and there is in any case no one-to-one correspondence between victimisation and offending."


Reading the article brought to mind the oft-heard formulation "she fell pregnant". It sounds so piously Victorian and decorous and yet today it's used largely by humanist Left-wingers who view the gentility of the nineteenth century as the very definition of hypocrisy. It's odd how these rather bourgeois euphemisms have come to pepper the discourse of ear-ringed class warriors in the Social Services. It has often amazed me how people (usually in the public sector) can be simultaneously so mendaciously squeamish, achingly "culturally sensitive" and censoriously P.C., whilst littering their speech with cursing, profanity and sexual references. (I used to run into such types daily when I was in the employ of the State: I call them the New Prigs).

Of course, that's not to say it's impossible to conceive accidentally through a simple fall: indeed, I'm sure that somewhere in the archives of The Fortean Times...

Posted by: Paul H. at December 7, 2010 04:06 PM

Dalrymple always writes as if trying to win a 4th form essay prize.

To begin at the beginning, what on Earth is wrong with the expression "let it go"? Would the literal-minded Theo have quibbled with "let it rip", without evidence of harm to fabric?

A curse upon witless euphemism, a curse upon too much use of the passive, but also a curse upon pomposity. I assume TD chose his pseudonym with care, to sound liike a tedious saloon-bar windbag, but he has lived up to it too well. [And it is tiresome that he reminds us so frequently of having worked for years in a prison. Just for the record, so did I. Prison doctors are regarded (passive) as folk who are nowhere near the peak of their profession (euphemism).]

Posted by: Richard B at December 23, 2010 05:50 AM
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