“Create a language and you create a world,” is one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s less-impenetrable sayings. For example, is adultery a mortal sin or only a lifestyle choice? Or is a large pork pie a real treat or the likely precursor of a heart attack? An hour in the sun with your shirt off a warming boost to morale after a drab winter, or just asking for a dose of melanoma? I remembered Wittgenstein’s words when I listened to a recent episode of the BBC’s File on Four.
In fact, File on Four is itself a good example of what Wittgenstein was talking about. Is it an informative programme which brings to our notice matters of pressing public concern, or only an opinionated, tetchy, left wing nag which constantly reviles our social institutions? That recent edition of the programme provided a good example.
To use the reporter’s own words, the subject before us was “mental health services.” It was a very sad story. There was a talented young man of good reputation who wrote and illustrated children’s books. Another young man of, as it turned out, quite different character launched an entirely unprovoked attack on the young writer and stabbed him to death, making his escape on a 1000cc motorbike. The killer was subsequently pursued by the police, crashed his bike and was killed. The substance of the programme was the story of how these terrible events had come to pass: who was at fault and might it all have been prevented, and so on.
This was where the makers of File on 4 chose their language and thereby created a particular world. The presenter described how the killer had “a history of mental health issues.” Over a long period, he had received treatment but – and this was the gist, as it were, of the programme’s thrust – in the “run up” to the killing, the murderer had not been receiving the appropriate treatment from the “mental health services.” The conclusion was that such treatment would have prevented the fatal stabbing.
Thus, if anyone was at fault, it was the mental health services.
The reporter and his “team” were assiduous in gathering evidence. They interviewed the killer’s father who testified that his son had been a kind, even-tempered boy until he started on the heroin: “It was his drugs that did it.” Still, there was no imputing any blame for the killing to its perpetrator – or even any responsibility for his starting to take heroin in the first place. “it was his drugs that did it.”
If File on 4 was going to attach any moral responsibility to anyone or anything – apart from those naughty drugs – it was to the neglectful “mental health services.” Interestingly, there was no suggestion that the killer might have had some responsibility – gosh don’t let’s mention the word wrong! – for how he chose to live his life. Really, we were meant to believe that he had had no choice in the matter. He was just as much a “victim” as the man he had stabbed to death.
This is but one example of Wittgenstein’s “words and the world” thesis. Our entire public life is constructed out of such examples where we discover that we are perpetually in a prison – or rather a variety of prisons – built out of our choices of words. Two more examples and then I’ll leave you to go walk the dog…
Is “taking the knee” an acknowledgment of our deep complicity in the crimes of colonialism and racism? Or is it a sentimental piece of political posturing and a belated act of penitence for deeds we never committed? Are 200,000 abortions each year of perfectly healthy embryos examples of murder – or are they the result of our enlightened and progressive attitudes which support “a woman’s right to choose”?
It’s not for me to tell you what to think: that is, I’m not the BBC!