Monday, 16 March 2009

Dissidents or Dissenters?

Thought I would post this recent Christopher Hitchen's excerpt as it makes typically engaging reading on Northern Ireland.

From: Terrorists, Dissidents, and Copy Editors
Why it matters how the media describe killers in Iraq and Ireland.
By Christopher Hitchens

'Until recently, the same newspaper(The New York Times) used to employ a description of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland that was slightly less misleading and also somewhat more amusing. Aware of the fact that its readers knew that there were two discrepant kinds of Christianity practiced in the province, the New York Times would do its job of being strictly informative by characterizing the IRA as "overwhelmingly Catholic." One could see what the editors were vainly trying to do—namely, to suggest that very few Ulster Protestants indeed were succumbing to the temptation to enlist in the ranks of the IRA—but the resulting image was nonetheless risible, as if someone encountering a gunman of the IRA would be first and foremost overwhelmed by his Catholicism. (Come to think of it, where was Bill Donohue of the Catholic League when this slander was being promulgated? He usually kindles into flame at much less provocation.)

But now something really depressing has happened and is spreading like weed across the media. Since the Good Friday agreement that committed the IRA to disarmament and the Republican movement to electoral politics, two small, ultraviolent nationalist factions have sworn to continue the armed struggle. In the past week, they have randomly slain members of the army and police. And it has been agreed, apparently without a discussion or an argument, to refer to these gruesome elements as dissidents.

I have consulted the final court of appeal on this, in the form of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the ruling is pretty final. All the origins of the term lie in expressions of argument and opinion, and of "dissent" from ruling systems or ideologies. There is a solitary and obscure reference, from a report in the London Times of 1955, to an obscure Vietnamese sect described as "dissident" and also as launching attacks on local Vietnamese army positions, but otherwise all the sources and authorities are unanimous: The term describes only attitudes and not actions, and it is most famously associated with the intellectual opposition to Soviet totalitarianism. (Prior to that usage, it was principally applied to those religious people of conscience who refused allegiance to the established Catholic and Episcopalian churches, which ironically would perhaps qualify the word dissident as being "overwhelmingly Protestant.")

Thanks for the original link K.


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