Words can change our capacity for reason
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan during a press briefing last week on the revised promissory notes arrangement
In the past fortnight, the phrase “promissory note” has taken on a new and darker significance. It’s a strange phrase to begin with – one of those arcane constructions generated by the functionaries and exigencies of economic disciplines, which, long hidden from general sight, are occasionally drawn by unusual circumstances into public discourse as everyday terms. Enthusiastically repeated by reporters and commentators, these phrases are capable of changing our capacity for reason and moral action.
One remarked capacity of these phrases is that of usurping the everyday meanings of commonplace words. Most famously in recent times, this occurred with the phrase “going forward”, which gnawed away at a previously understood concept – “the future” – denying the unknowability of what has yet to happen, asserting mankind as the architect of all earthly affairs, and placing the flag of Mammon on the peak of tomorrow.
The application to the plundering of Irish independence of the term “promissory note” effects a comparable sleight-of-hand, wrenching the meaning of the term from its historical context, and co-opting its anchor-word “promise” to a malignant purpose.
A “promissory note” should have a clear moral context, arising from a negotiated contract between two parties: the party to whom the promise is made and the party obliging himself to pay. By definition, it cannot be imposed.
A promise is not something passive. If I promise something to someone, a note of that promise is accompanied by a moral obligation, to which my name and reputation are attached. Note this list of synonyms: “swear”, “undertake”, “guarantee”, “agree”, “pledge”, “commit”, “give your word”. It is not possible for someone to “give my word” on my behalf.
Once the phrase “promissory note” was launched into general currency in relation to Anglo, its invisible authors had already disabled most of the potential moral quibbles they sought to circumvent. The connotations of virtue and obligation summoned up by the word “promise” become available to the logic of the proposed transaction and all potential for controversy was sealed outside the phrase. Moreover, every time someone used the term without imbuing it with some element of irony, the effect was consolidated.
Lately, a new dimension has entered in, with the abbreviation “prom note”, which brings a subtle element of affection. It is as though we refer to some mildly exasperating-but-esteemed venerable uncle, whose demands that we behave virtuously provoke us to indulge his irritating-but-righteous directives while laughingly throwing our eyes up to heaven.
The week before last, the “promissory notes” that emerged from a corrupt bank became a solemn imposition on the freedom of our children. Even five years ago, this would have seemed unconscionable.