The Guardian • Issue #2025


  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2025
Weasel Words heading

Are you an “activist”? Is “stability” a good thing? Who in this society is “shrill”? It depends on who you ask in this Weasel Words!



This term is usually a descriptor of someone who is taking actual action for a good cause, often a progressive one. We’ve long been used to descriptions of “environmental activists” or “human rights activists,” while respected Indigenous actor Jack Charles is being remembered as an activist.

The term is one of those “transitive adjectives” identified on the old Yes Minister TV show. If someone is very active – but in a cause you don’t like or in a way you disapprove of – they’re an “extremist” (boo!). If their activism is towards a cause you like/don’t mind, they’re an “activist” (yay!).

Where I find the word “activist” weasely is when it’s used to describe fascists or racists the ABC is too timid to name as such (or who commercial media enjoy promoting).

“Activist” has a secondary meaning for the Murdoch-owned NewsCorp, in the term “activist judges” or “activist judiciary,” for use on occasions when judges make decisions News dislikes.



This term is evil or nice, depending on who uses it. If the leader (sorry, I meant “dictator”) of a government (sorry, “regime”) not on our media’s good list talks about stability, the term is given heavy scare quotation marks. If someone is writing about the recently-deceased Elizabeth Windsor, stability is just something she managed to symbolise by making it to ninety-six while being wealthy and famous. I’m not Sunder Katwala, director of British Future and former leader of the British Fabians (who made that claim about Ms Windsor), I just think “stability” is a good thing if it’s an alternative to years of civil wars and poverty (hey centrist commentators, when do the CPC get their brownie points for stability?), and a bad thing when it’s a comfort blanket for the oppressive class-obsessed caste system that passes for British society.



In the real physical world, “shrill” is how we describe a really annoying noise; an umpire’s whistle to close to our ears; a toddler having a melt-down; those annoying “noisy minah” birds that are everywhere at the moment, some of our pop-singers heard without the benefits of AutoTune. In the world of having opinions about politics, workers conditions, oppression, or wanting our planet to be fit for human habitation, “shrill” is just a way to describe opinions reactionary opinion-havers would rather people didn’t have. If you must feel that kindy teachers deserve a living wage or that there are more democratic ways to choose a head of state than hereditary monarchy (such as pretty much all other ways of choosing a head of state), try not to be shrill about it. It won’t make your good ideas more likely to happen – in fact, being non-shrill will make your voice completely ineffective, but at least conservative blowhards will be able to listen to their own thoughts in peace and quiet.

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