Words can change our capacity for reason

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan during a press briefing last week on the revised promissory notes arrangement

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.

But, stealthily, insidiously, the collective mindset has been worked upon, by the insinuation of weasel phrase and the subtle promulgation of unease, rendering us finally relieved that we have gotten off so lightly. In this process there has been a total inversion of morality, whereby the imperative of “paying your debts” was wielded to cast into slavery or exile at least three generations of Irish people and absolve a tight cadre of chancers from responsibility or consequences.

This is the culmination of a lengthy cultural process. In the past two decades, three major shifts have occurred in our collective psychology, moving us, each time, further away from the conditions of independence and sovereignty. I do not include the arrival of the “troika” (another affectionate affectation), which represented merely the formalisation of a process of enslavement that was already well advanced.

Long before, in the 1990s, the first major shift saw the weight of our culture shift definitively from the spiritual to the material. This change had its roots in the denied and buried calamities of the 1840s and came to maturity in the era of the “Celtic Tiger” – another phrase whose estrangement from irony should have alerted us to something ominous.

The second phase of the national enslavement was the reaction to the inevitable disintegration of 2008, in which rage at the loss of a cherished promise was the dominant note. The shallowness of that emoting caused it to stop at the symptoms of the condition, seeking to name, blame and shame while avoiding the true meanings of events.

Out of this emerged a form of leadership that refused to lead, but insisted on managerial solutions – offering appeasement and supplication instead of vision and hope, and manipulating public confusion with a mixture of dangled woolly optimism and creepy passive aggression.

The third phase has been visible for about a year now – a feeble resignation bordering on despair. A culture out of which has been sucked virtually all hope of an absolute nature, cast back almost entirely on the material realm, has quietly become persuaded that its salvation lies in recovering the “promise” of “prosperity”. For this it will endure and accept almost anything – even the indenturing of its children for the whole of their lives, by issuing a promise that it has no moral entitlement to make.

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