Equivocation

“These doubtful speeches were used much in the old times by their false prophets, as appeareth by the oracles of Delphos and of the Sybil’s prophecies devised by the religious persons of those days to abuse the superstitious people, and to encumber their busy brains with vain hope or vain fear.”

The Art of English Poesy   

George Puttenham (16th century).

Equivocation: The art of saying one thing but meaning another.

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George Puttenham was writing about equivocation, an art he considered historical. He also considered it dangerous and wicked, a way of telling lies (sinful) while appearing not to. Shakespeare used much equivocation in his plays, although the word hardly existed then. Shakespeare portrayed equivocation as entertainment, as a way of providing information about the world and its people; while no angel Shakespeare was certainly not wicked. At that time equivocation had fiercely anti-Catholic connotations; the authorities were worried about the way Catholics used equivocation to deny their beliefs or that they were hiding priests. You could tell the authorities, for example, that you were taking dinner at a friend’s house while not mentioning that you were attending a Catholic mass. You were not lying but you were concealing the truth.

Equivocation was a rare and scholarly term, appearing in only a few books in the sixteenth century, mostly religious works and never in a play, poem or story. Because Shakespeare was such a gifted writer, wonderful words seemingly just flowing from him without thought, equivocation came naturally to him and his characters. All actors equivocate; it is entertaining, it is human, it can be clever, it can be wicked. We would be bored into slumber if all actors spoke honestly and always spoke the truth. The first time that Shakespeare used the actual word (although he many times used the deed) was in Hamlet, at the turn of the century, during the grave scene with Yoric’s skull. In answer to the Gravedigger’s clever but maddening replies, Hamlet tells Horatio:

How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

Hamlet means that they must speak literally or the Gravedigger will continue with his evasive replies. Shakespeare is being humorous here; later he would use the word in a more sinister fashion. Most people thought that equivocation meant ambiguous; as late as 1605 Francis Bacon defined it as such in his Advancement of Learning. But by 1606, familiarity with the word was almost universal. It was no longer a neutral word, it was now commonly thought to mean concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another. Shakespeare used equivocation as an action and a word to great effect in Macbeth, of the same year.

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Although the Earl of Salisbury wrote of “that most strange and gross doctrine of equivocation” which would “tear in sunder all the bonds of human conversation”, and should be rooted out from society, Shakespeare would have understood that efforts to eliminate equivocation were hopeless and naive. Salisbury, the King – everybody – equivocated whether they were conscious of it or not. Equivocation was life’s most common sin – lying.

Shakespeare was subtle with his use of words, and equivocation was not always obvious. Though the word originated in its present use with Catholics using it to deny their beliefs, it soon became much more common with writers. One could say a King equivocated without actually accusing him of lying. Equivocation is a sophisticated word, suitable for a King and his courtiers to use.  Today a politician can say “I may have used slight equivocation on that point” and most people will not even understand that he/she has actually admitted to lying.

The action of equivocating had been in common use for as long as humans have had language. Augustus convinced the Romans that they were living in a free and fair democracy, although they lived under a ruthless dictatorship. Now, in the UK people are told that they live in a democracy, but they are presented with a choice between two almost identical parties who will merely preserve the status quo, likewise the USA. and many other countries. I live in Cuba where daily the TV convinces the people that they live in a wonderful free and fair society, but it’s a dictatorship with some good points. It’s not free and fair. Today politicians and advertisers (the main culprits) use it constantly. I can mostly ignore politicians but advertising is ubiquitous, stupid and wicked; it is impossible to ignore. Equivocation, even if it was once an art, is now the “gross doctrine” that Salisbury feared.

There is no advertising in Cuba, apart from the Cubans advertising themselves: their revolution, their system, their sportsmen and women – everything Cuban; they do not advertise commercial products. The only other place I know of where TV doesn’t advertise is Britain, with the BBC, but a significant section of the population would like to destroy it, as that section worldwide would destroy anything precious.

 

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Even in Cuba I cannot escape advertising. We have satellite TV, where my woman watches the telenovelas and I watch the football. I thought advertising in England was extremely stupid but the US satellite channels are much more obviously dumb, just a medium for advertising, rather than a medium for entertainment. Programmes are interrupted every ten minutes with the dimmest adverts imaginable, merely a method for repeating names hundreds, thousands of times so that you will be unable to forget them; there is no humour, not very much thought – just the repetition of brand names and phone numbers – and in many, many hours of programming there is not even one minute of intelligence on show. Coke now transposes its logo over the crowd during the football matches – distracting and mind-numbing – as it is supposed to be.

I have found similar programming in East Asia but particularly the United States, the country that has been bombarded more than any other. It has affected even many of their decent writers, whom write of drinking a coke when they really mean something else. Coke has been so ruthlessly advertised for over a century, that taking a drink now means taking a coke to many, many people, such is the effect of constant brainwashing. I don’t even like Coke. I think it’s horrible, but am prepared to believe that some people like it and are not just influenced by the advertising. Hoover became an actual adjective thanks to that company’s successful promotions.

During a long life I have refused to believe that people can be affected by advertising because it is so simple-minded, but of course they are. They believe soap characters are real, and they believe advertising even more if an actor or celebrity equivocates and pretends that he/she uses a particular product (for a large amount of money). One must assume from this that at least seventy per cent of world’s population (particularly the USA’s) is irredeemably stupid; they buy cars, labour saving devices, clothes, tablets and phones that they do not need, and will  soon be persuaded to replace them.

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Graham Greene said that “In any government there grows a hideous establishment of stupid men”. That is true, but unfortunately those stupid men represent a very large mass of even stupider people whose “busy brains they encumber with vain hope or vain fear.” These stupid men, big swinging dicks (an apt phrase) rule the world. While once harbouring vague thoughts that human beings will eventually sort themselves out, I tend to agree now with Voltaire, that “men are mad, and anyone who thinks they can be cured is even madder.

The consumer society does not work; it will destroy itself sooner than you think. Who will stop it? Not the public. One cannot underestimate the stupidity of the public. The public is a big fat idiot. Being naturally non-violent, I would not go quite so far as Bill Hicks, who requested that all those in the public relations/advertising industry kill themselves, but I would like to put them all on an island where they can sell each other junk, and not pollute the world.

Drink Coke. You know it makes sense.

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Happy Idleness

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Idleness is a word that encompasses a great deal of human activity. I suppose in today’s society it is a dirty word. We’re all supposed to be rushing around being proactive, inspiring change, making things happen – why we should do that is rarely questioned. Idleness is associated with those on benefits, people who don’t want to work, loafers, scroungers, drains on society.

But I don’t think of idleness as meaning that. Idleness can merely mean stopping to think. How many people actually stop to think about anything, free from the distractions of TV, the Internet, their phones, games – the constant babble of civilisation?

 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the essay An Apology For Idlers in 1876. He could not imagine the ways one can be idle today; just the welfare state and technology would have been unimaginable to him. But his points remain as true today as they were then; many, many things have changed, some things remain the same.

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Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formalities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

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Ah, the mad pursuit of money for its own sake. I read today that Tony Blair insists that he is ONLY worth twenty million, not the one hundred million that some claim. Why does he want that much? What will he do with it? Apart from other obvious acts of his, isn’t it a little disturbing that a man who chases after money with such enthusiasm ran the country for ten years? Do the people who run after more and more money all their lives ever stop to think: What did I do with my life? Well, Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East peace envoy’. But that’s a joke, isn’t it?

Stevenson again:

Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.

He continues:

While others (at school) are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week is out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or so to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

I learnt very little at school. My education began while I was playing truant, but mostly after I left. I chose what I needed to learn. I don’t think anybody does learn much at school, apart from perhaps how to read and write, if they didn’t know how already. Most real learning comes from life. An uneducated person can be very wise, an educated person very stupid. But there is no place for the wise today.

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I suppose the best universities and some private schools provide something better for people. But our government was, and is, full of these people: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al – born privileged, they seem to be magnificently ignorant, have worked nowhere, apart from perhaps PR or the Law, have never fought, have never had to worry about paying a bill. No knowledge of history (unimportant), can’t do simple multiplication, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people – hardly a good advertisement for the education which produced them.

Stevenson continues:

Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the businessman some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has another and more important quality than these. I mean wisdom. He will have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he finds no out-of-the-way truths, he identifies himself with no very burning falsehood.

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Politicians, leaders generally (not all), never stop to think; they are too busy. As are many in the mad rush for money, the only true gauge of worth today:

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Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

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They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

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Stevenson’s essay reminds me of my travels. The sheer happiness and joy of living one often witnesses in poor countries. I can vouch for the happiness of children in Cuba, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. I have read about the amazing resilience of the untouchables in Bangladesh and Bhopal. I am not suggesting that we should copy their economies and become poor, but we have lost something here. Something is very wrong with our lives.

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There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. The other day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with so jolly an air that he set everyone he passed into a good humour. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.

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I’ll remember this on my next trip to Cuba, a poor country that has much wrong with it. But one of those wrongs is not the happiness of the children (or most of the adults, come to that). I have heard young Cubans crying very few times in years of visiting and staying (they laugh all the time). It is impossible in England to visit a supermarket or a cafe without hearing some spoilt child screaming its head off, its parents having no idea what to do with it, apart from perhaps buy it something else. The children have no shame; they don’t care who they disturb or who sees them. I would never have cried in front of other people when I was a child. I rarely cried at all. Today there are dozens of them, every day, everywhere.

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But back to idling and a last warning from Stevenson:

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They have dwarfed and narrowed their souls by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material amusement, and not one thought to rub together with another, while they wait for the train. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

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A marvellous essay, as true now as when it was written, 138 years ago.

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