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With friends like this…

2010 April 7

Very useful things, friends. I have a friend who used to work in a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases clinic who told me that a lot of the folks who ring in for advice about one lurid compliant or another are not telephoning on their own behalf. No, they are calling on behalf of a friend who is too embarrassed to call themselves in case anyone might think… Well you get the drift.

Let me put that another way. I have heard that staff in sexually transmitted diseases often receive calls… Well, I haven’t actually heard it, but I can imagine it might be true… Or, when I was at university I once rang a clinic and …. No, not that way perhaps…

The ancient Greeks used to study all this kind of thing. Not sexually transmitted disease. But rhetorical tropes, that is ways of speech and telling stories using different devices to get your point across. We still use them today, of course, we just don’t analyses them or give them names like metaphor, metonymy, and litotes though oxymoron and hyperbole has survived into our modern grammar.

There have been a couple of interesting friends around in recent times. The Pope’s personal preacher and the Archbishop of Canterbury both got themselves into hot water quoting things that friends have said. Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, caused controversy with his Good Friday sermon in St Peter’s Basilica in which he quoted a Jewish friend as saying that media attacks on the Church in their “use of stereotypes” and “the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt” reminded him of “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”. Fr Cantalamessa added that Jews throughout history had been the victims of “collective violence” which is why his letter-writing friend so sympathised with the attacks on the Roman Catholic Church.

The comments of the Preacher to the Papal Household angered both Jewish groups and those representing victims of clerical sex abuse, not to mention many others who adjudged that the Church feeling sorry for itself was not the most appropriate response to the general onslaught of public outrage at the scandal.

A few days later the Archbishop of Canterbury used the same trope. “I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now,” Rowan Williams said on Radio 4. “And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility — that’s not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland, I think.”

In the context of his conversation with Philip Pullman and others it sounded a fairly unremarkable thing to say. But in the hands of story-hungry journalists it swiftly became “Irish church has lost all credibility, says ABC”.

But the interesting question here is can you distance yourself from responsibility for what you are saying by quoting someone else? There are certainly a lot of cases where it doesn’t work, as the Pope himself found out in his notorious Regensburg address where he quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying that the only new things Islam had brought to the world were “bad and inhuman”. The inverted commas and the attribution to a Christian speaking in 1391 did not lesson the violence of the reaction in parts of the Muslim world.

Politicians, on the other hand, routinely have more success with the device as part of the Westminster lobby process where “friends of George Osborne say” is widely used to precede a quote from the man himself, but one he feels it would be best not seen coming from his own mouth.

The mistake, it seems, is thinking that friends, real or imaginary, will get you off the hook – or so a friend of mine told me.


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