Thursday, 2 November 2017

From multiculturalism to genocide

The Mayflower colonists, some of the earliest and certainly among the most famous of the early settlers from Europe in North America, displayed a fundamental change in their behaviour in the hundred or so years after their arrival. I didn't know that the national holiday of Thanksgiving was instituted by Abraham Lincoln to celebrate the way the settlers sat down together and ate with American Indians; yet within a few years the settlers’ attitudes to the American Indians had become increasingly hostile, ultimately becoming genocidal. From multiculturalism to genocide is quite a dramatic shift. What caused it? Why was it that “The Puritans began to define themselves through was against the Indians, as the US historian Jill Lepore regretfully concluded”? And why did this attitude change happen in Boston and around, a city that today would be described as one of the most civilized and liberal places in the United States? Yet this was a city that in the seventeenth century had “a deserved reputation for harshness to women” (Rebecca Fraser, TLS, September 29, 2017). 

How to do things with words

Clive Stafford Smith is an eminent attorney, writing here about ways of reducing the US prison population, which had reached 6.5 million by 2014.

According to the most recent analysis, 52 per cent of the federal prisoners in the US are locked up for drug offences.  Of those incarcerated for marijuana offences, 44 per cent had no prior criminal record. So legalising drugs would instantly cut the entire prison population by half. This is not an unreasonable proposition - the US Global Commission on Drugs recently called for the decriminalisation of use and possession of marijuana, and in 2016, three US states voted to decriminalise recreational marijuana.  (TLS, February 3 2017, “Prisoners of Conscience”)

This passage comprises four sentences. Sentences one and three belong together and are undoubtedly correct. They apply to all drugs, hard or soft. Sentences two and four apply to marijuana only. Somehow the two propositions have become joined, so that something many of us would be in favour of, or at least would review with sympathy – the decriminalisation of marijuana – has become part of a justification for decriminalising all drugs, which is a very different proposition. It is a fascinating example, by a lawyer, of  placing unrelated topics close together with the result that the reader unwittingly accepts the reasonableness of the whole.  Perhaps the trick works when used in court. Is there a name for such a rhetorical device?