Wednesday 2 September 2009
Johann Hari: Lies, damned lies... and the double-speak I would expunge
'Climate change', 'infant mortality', 'fair trade'... the list goes on
The English language needs periodically to be given a spring-clean, where we scrape off the phrases that have become stuck to the floor and toss out the rotting metaphors that have fallen down the back of the settee. George Orwell warned that language will inevitably become cluttered with phrases that have lost their meaning – or, worse, are actually "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind". He advised: "If one gets rid of these bad habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration."
I'm not talking about the clichés that crowd us every day. "Your call is very important to us..." we are told, by automated voices that don't give a toss about our call, because if they did, they'd employ somebody to actually answer the damn phone. "With all due respect..." you'll be told, before being thoroughly disrespected. They are disingenuous, but they don't have political consequences.
No – I am talking about phrases that, while posing as neutral descriptions of the world, contain a hidden political agenda that then moulds the assumptions of the listener. An obvious recent example is the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques", a euphemism deliberately created by the American right to disinfect torture and make it sound reasonable. Language is often deliberately bent and misshapen for political reasons in this way. For example, in the 1980s, the proponents of the failed "War on Drugs" fought hard to turn the phrase "drug use" – plain, straightfoward, and unloaded – into "drug abuse." It evokes sinister images – it sounds like "child abuse" – but what does it mean? How is somebody who smokes cannabis to relax once a week "abusing" the drug? Do they beat up their spliffs?
These phrases can be successfully driven from the language: during the Vietnam War, news reports blandly referred to slaughtered civilians as "collateral damage" – a bloodless phrase that evokes nothing. Today, even the Pentagon press officers avoid those words when describing the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, because it has been so thoroughly satirised.
So which phrases would I expunge? There's a useful book by the writer Steven Poole called Unspeak detailing thousands – but here's a short list of some of my own.
Labelling food as "Fair Trade." This phrase suggests that paying desperately poor people a decent wage is a nice ethical add-on, and a gratifying departure from the norm. In fact, it should be taken for granted – the default position of civilised human beings. If we believed that, the labelling would be reversed: it's all the other food that should be labelled as "Unfair Trade", "Rapacious Trade", or "Let's-Pay-a-Pittance Trade." The terrific comedian Andy Zaltzman suggests a sign that could be on the packets: it is a silhouette of an obese businessman pissing on an African child.
"Infant mortality." This sounds clinical and antiseptic – who feels moved when they hear it? – when what we are in fact talking about is dead babies. Here's an example. In Malawi in southeast Africa, the country's soil became badly depleted by overuse, so the democratic government there adopted a sensible policy of subsidising fertiliser. The nation's hungry farmers were given sacks of it at a third of its real cost – and the country bloomed. Then the World Bank damned this as a "market distortion" and said that if Malawi wanted to keep receiving loans it had to stop them at once. So the subsidies stopped, and the country's crops failed. A famine began – and "infant mortality rose".
That's the dull phrase. What we mean is – lots of babies died, totally needlessly. Three years ago, the Malawian government finally told the World Bank to stick its loans, and subsidized fertiliser again. Now nobody there is starving, and the country is the single biggest exporter of corn to the World Food Programme in southern Africa. When on some rare occasion this is mentioned in the news, they might say in passing, "Infant mortality fell." The phrase that tells the truth is: hundreds of thousands of babies stopped dying.
"Christian/Muslim children." Routinely, children are referred to as "Christian" or "Muslim" or "Jewish" or whatever their parents' religion, to justify corralling them into schools segregated by superstition, where they will be indoctrinated in that faith. But children – as Richard Dawkins has pointed out – have no religion. They haven't read the texts, thought through the ideas, and come to a conclusion on the basis of evidence. The purveyors of this phrase don't want them to, either – they want to get them at an age when their rational faculties are poorly formed, and implant it so deeply in their minds that they will become upset and confused when they hear rational counter-arguments. We should refer to them as "the children of Christian/Muslim/Jewish parents", with the clear implication that they have a right to form their own views.
"Climate change." This phrase was invented by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, when he discovered that focus groups found the phrase "global warming" too scary. Climate change sounds nice and gentle, and evokes our latent awareness that the climate has changed naturally throughout history. Even "global warming" is problematic, since it makes us picture putting our feet up in the sun. The more accurate phrase would be "the unravelling of the ecosystem", "climate chaos", or "catastrophic man-made global warming." They're a mouthful, but they are honest.
"Out of context." I would allow this phrase to be used, but in highly restricted circumstances. Sometimes, a quote is taken out of context, but if you are going to make that accusation, you should be required to give the original context, and explain why the quote was wrong. Instead, this has become a get-out-of-jail free card for anybody who is caught saying something disgusting. For example, when I revealed that Jake Chapman said his art-works performed "a good social service, like the children who killed Jamie Bulger," he simply said this was "stripped from the proper context." How? I have read it in context repeatedly and can't see his argument. It wasn't preceded by a sentence saying "If I was an attention-seeking fool who didn't take anything seriously, I would say..." Similarly, when I revealed that the historian Andrew Roberts praises the Amritsar massacre of innocent civilians as "necessary", and lauds the maniac who ordered it, he said my quotes were "out of context." How?
There are many more I could offer. The use of royal titles by republican commentators and newspapers is bizarre: why can't we call the Windsor family by their names, as we do with everyone else? Why not refer to "the Queen" as Elizabeth Windsor, and her son as Charles Windsor? It chips away at their ludicrous unearned aura, and introduces a republican logic to the language. The phrase "the politics of envy" is routinely used to stigmatize the most basic instincts for social justice – including by New Labour politicians like Hazel Blears. As the superb book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows, the more unequal a society becomes, the higher the rates of crime, addiction, and sickness soar. To oppose that isn't envy. It is humanity.
Orwell said we must "let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around". If they are dead babies, call them dead babies. If the ecosystem is unravelling, say the ecosystem is unravelling. It is only when we honestly describe the world that we can begin to change it.
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