Saturday, 18 June 2016

Not a 'Tragedy'- Why Words Matter

When horrible things happen to people, one word is regularly used by news-gatherers to describe the unfolding events: 'Tragedy'. The Orlando massacre or the murder of Jo Cox MP were 'tragedies', apparently, according to some newspapers and the BBC news. Sorry, No, they weren't, and we shouldn't say they were. Now, this might be caused by sloppy English teaching when these news-people were wending their ways through school, but they (and we) shouldn't use that word to describe those events. Why?
Because it doesn't mean what they think it means. 'Tragedy' goes back to Greek drama, about some ancient hero of high position, brought down by a flaw in their personality (Stick with me on this, please). Shakespeare took this idea and used it again and again in his plays- think  of Hamlet and his indecision, Coriolanus and his arrogance, Othello and his jealousy, all of them tragic heroes. Each of them are brought down by a small human failing. Each play follows their dilemmas, their wrong-headed decisions, and the final descent into catastrophe.

Can you see where this is going? In a 'Tragedy', the victim is unwittingly complicit in their own destruction. Now, whatever your opinion on gay rights, I don't think anyone can sensibly or sensitively say that those people in that Orlando LGTB night-club somehow engineered their own deaths at the hands of a mentally disturbed man with an assault weapon. Neither did Jo Cox unwittingly contribute to her own death, by running an MP surgery in her constituency.

But calling these events 'tragic', is to unconsciously say that their deaths were in some sad way unavoidable, or destined. And that's not true. Regarding Orlando, countries that are able to keep guns out of the hands of people with murderous tendencies, tend to have less massacres. Of course, we can't provide 100% protection for everybody, all the time, by banning easy-kill weapons, but it does seem to make a difference when those particular items are harder to obtain. Yes, a knife can also be lethal, but it's a bit harder to plan a massacre with one. Was Jo Cox's murder inevitable? It's hard to see why, but that's for the police and anti-terrorism units to work out. But by making herself available to her constituents, she was doing her job and doing it well, by all accounts. That's not a personality flaw. That's doing your job.

So these events were not 'tragic'. They were atrocities, pure and simple- evil, undeserved and cruel, perpetrated by twisted minds. Let's use the right words to describe them.

1 comment:

  1. I would argue that these events were not tragedies for the reasons you have outlined, but they were tragic. Oxford English dictionary definition 'tragic - causing or characterised by extreme distress or sorrow'


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