I’ve noticed that the word traitor seems to be popping up in rhetoric a lot recently. It seems I’m not the only one to notice, with a German panel labelling it the ‘ugliest word of 2016’ due to Nazi overtones. A traitor is defined as ‘a person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause or principle.’ This means a person who is protesting against the actions of a government they see as deplorable is not a traitor, they are in fact staying entirely true to their own principles.
Protests which are designed to condemn the behaviour of a corporation – such as #DeleteUber – or deny a platform to alt-right speakers, as happened at the University of Berkeley are not betraying principles of freedom of commerce or speech. A company can and will do what it wants, but so can each customer. That alt-right speaker does have the right to speak, but equally everyone else has a similar right to ignore him, or speak up about why they don’t want him there. I, for example, have the right to tell you I’m going to turn up at your house once a week and read you poetry, and then send you a bill. You have the right to tell me you don’t want to pay for that, and you don’t want a stranger in your house. You’re missing out on some cracking poetry, of course, but you’re not a traitor to free speech to tell me so.
The word was used this week in relation to MPs who voted against Brexit, as if they were traitors to the country and the will of the people. Apart from the fact that the referendum didn’t deliver a resounding 100% vote, if you believe in the UK as a sovereign power, and you believe therefore in the sovereignty of parliament and the notion of parliamentary democracy, then you believe in the right of MPs to vote against something they believe is not in the national interest, or the interest of their constituents. They are, in fact, the living, breathing embodiment of faith in the system that they are accused of betraying.
It seems like ‘traitor’ has become shorthand for ‘someone I don’t agree with’ and that’s dangerous because the word has so many emotive associations. It is used as an argument-ending word to shut down discussion and will, in turn, become meaningless. The truth will always be more powerful than any amount of hyperbole or rhetorical tricks, and writers have a duty to preserve and defend language so that the truth can be shared with people. A good example of this is in the Pablo Neruda poem I’m Explaining a Few Things and the haunting lines:
Neruda is the master of simile and metaphor but in this poem, denouncing the Nationalist movement during the Spanish Civil War, he understands that nothing is more powerful or emphatic than the bare, unvarnished truth. In these times, writers must look past the rhetoric and maintain a clear eye and a steady pen. This is how to write beautifully but more importantly, it is how to live without betraying your freedom.