The most important concepts in our collective discourse have an innate tendency to pile on the pounds, poor things.
Take Freedom, for example. Thomas Hobbes would have taken a matter of moments to inform you as to whether you possessed it or not. These days he'd be scratching his head along with the rest of us.
Over the course of four centuries it has become increasingly difficult for educated, reasoned people to find themselves on the same page on this matter, and sometimes they disagree even as to the text everyone ought to be referring to.
This cultural bulking up has notably accelerated in my lifetime, affecting a whole load of key terms — Racism, Refugee, Genocide, Misogyny etc. etc. — all of which have become, as well as engorged, rather slippery and context-driven.
This sudden velocity of expansion can be explained in part by the way these rousing concepts have been adopted by specific governmental and non-governmental bodies and other organised groups of activists.
Freedom was always everyone's problem (at least as the latter grouping was then defined), but these others were nichier concerns, yet not without the aspiration to be so much grander and collective in their impact.
Today there is hardly an interest group which refuses to imagine that its problem is very much everyone's problem.
And once you have salaried individuals whose careers depend on their specific area of interest achieving maximum reach the goalposts start to move all over the place.
Here in Guatemala there is one such term one could write an entire book about, and such a tome would be duty bound to outline its often unanticipated effects on the nation’s recent history: IMPUNIDAD (Impunity).
As I suggest, this is a very complex issue, but I will outline what I think is the correct basic outline. As Guatemala moved into the new millennium and attempted to put the years of civil strife behind it, the term was largely deployed in order to refer to atrocities committed prior to 1996 and the alarming possibility that those who had committed them might never face justice.
There were then two specific cases which permitted a kind of mission creep into the postwar era: that of the murder of Bishop Gerardi (for daring to publicise details of the role of the state in human rights abuses) and that of former dictator Ríos Montt, who had retained a high profile into the new democratic period.
Just as the army was losing its privileged position alongside the executive, the office of Fiscal General was provided with some extra bite in order to pursue cases against those who might otherwise be permanently guilty of impunity. This seemed like a good idea at the time.
Yet the remit started to swell in the manner characterised above. Maybe it would be wrong to describe this as a consequence of over-feeding, yet the range of items in the diet definitively expanded and the targets of prosecutors (particularly under CICIG) were increasingly those whose impunity had more to do with on-going circumvention of the law in the present time than past offences under the military regimes — though it helped that there was considerable overlap at first.
What then happened should come as a warning to all those conceptual guardians who have overseen significant bloating under their watches. Impunity here suddenly switched to signify its own antonym* and the Guatemalan body entrusted with fighting it — FECI — has spent the last few months being the very paragon of carte blanche constitutional abuse.
This flip to the obverse is surely not limited to Guatemala and this one concept. For example, many self-styled anti-racists in western discourse are increasingly finding it hard not to sound like common or garden racists.