Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Criminal Use Of Language

‘Law and Order’ has always been one of the most influential issues in British politics, and is, once more, centre-stage ahead of this week’s local elections. But the debate has a new word this time around: “criminality.”

a) To be “guilty of committing (a) crime(s)” means to have broken the law.
b) To be “guilty of criminal behaviour” describes the actions taken in breaking the law.
c) To be “guilty of criminality” implies that one is inherently criminal, incapable of not committing crime.

If what is meant by “criminality” is a) or b), please – politicians and reporters – can we stick to using perfectly adequate existing words? But I suspect that the slide from crime to criminality is not so much sloppy use of language as deliberate use of language. And it is troubling: for the designation “guilty of criminality” both demonises those to whom it is applied, and absolves those who commit crime of responsibility for their actions. How might we possibly respond to criminality, other than by continuing to add and add to the numbers of inmates in our already overcrowded prisons? While we’re at it, why not pre-emptively incarcerate immigrants and the under-class, or Jews and gypsies, on the basis of group-criminality?

It would be a crime to allow the use of criminality to go unchecked. The debate is too significant for that…

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