My draft review of Steven Poole’s Unspeak is over the fold. Comments much appreciated.
The seemingly magical power of words is one of the first and greatest discoveries made by any human being. The ability to ask for something by name gives us, as infants and as adults, a massive increase in our power to control the world around us by influencing the actions of others. It is scarcely surprising then, that magical thinking, both ancient and modern, is centred largely on words and names – to know the true name of something is to control its essence.
On the other hand, most of us rapidly learn the limits and dangers of language. ‘Actions speak louder than words‘, ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ and other proverbs express the disillusionment that comes with the discovery that words don’t always mean what they seem to. But, of course, this discovery can only be expressed using more words, so their power can never be fully dispelled
Steven Poole begins his book Unspeak by quoting Confucius who, when asked what he would do if he became ruler said he would ‘rectify the names of things’. Confucius saw getting language right as the key to clear and reasonable thinking.
Poole shares the Confucian view, coining the term Unspeak, with its deliberate Orwellian resonance, to refer to language that incorporates unspoken assumptions. More neutrally, Unspeak is often referred to in discussions of logic as ‘persuasive definition’ and in social psychology as ‘framing’. Contemporary examples of Unspeak abound, and language is in need of rectification.
Unlike many writers in this genre, however, Poole does not suggest that language has deteriorated from a Golden Age of honesty and clarity. Unspeak has been with us since language began, and the most we can do is struggle to understand and expose it, a task that can never be fully realised.
Is this struggle necessary? Optimists might argue that euphemisms never succeed for long in concealing the underlying reality, and that the power of language to mislead is exaggerated by professional wordspinners. This viewpoint seems excessively sanguine. Phrases like ‘people’s republic’ or ‘free enterprise’ may lose their persuasive power in the long run, in the same way as overused metaphors eventually die, but, as Keynes observed, ‘in the long run we are all dead’.
A critique more suited to our postmodern times is that the whole idea of trying to tease out unspoken assumptions from our language is untenable, relying as it does on the notion that there exists an objective reality that we can apprehend independently of language. At least since the formulation of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, it has been widely claimed that we can understand the world only through language, and that different languages (or different discourses within a language) give rise to different, incommensurable world views.
This kind of thinking is implicit in George Lakoff’s arguments about framing, which have become very popular among liberals and progressives (terms which contain a fair bit of Unspeak themselves) in the United States. Lakoff attributes the success of the Republican party to its success in controlling the language of political, thereby framing the debate in a way that favors their preferred positions. He gives the example of ‘tax relief’, which Poole also discusses. Since ‘relief’ is good, ‘tax relief’ must appear as the removal of a burden, even if the end result is to place greater burdens on those who depend on tax-funded support to get by.
Unlike, Poole, however, Lakoff says ‘If you have been framed, the only response is to reframe. But you can’t do it in a sound bite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance.’
This argument is superficially appealing, but the proposed strategy is both wrong and futile. The wrongness of the claim that there is no response but reframing is central to Poole’s argument, and his book embodies the alternative denied by Lakoff.
The futility of reframing, as a political strategy for the US left, is even clearer. This is a game the Republicans are always going to win. They have more money, more resources and more professional spin doctors. In addition, they have at least a decade’s headstart. Not only the leaders but the Republican rank-and-file have learned to speak and think in soundbites, and change them in unison (consider all the versions of social security privatisation/choice/private accounts/personal accounts and so on).
Perhaps the most striking evidence of all this is that the favourite sound bites for critics of the Bush Administration, such as ‘Reality-based community’, ‘Coalition of the shrilling’ and ‘Fair and balanced’ have been appropriated from Republicans. The only recent example of the opposite process is ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’ which was an off-the-cuff remark rather than a considered soundbite.
Now, on to some examples of Unspeak. Some of them are obviously dishonest euphemisms, like the US military’s description of beating someone to death as ‘repetitive administration of legitimate force’. Poole’s critique is effective, and he finds some new and startling examples of the genre. For example, the idea of the ‘surgical striking’ has been extended to the military use of the medical term ‘debriding …’, which literally means the removal of diseased or necrotic tissue, to refer to the process of killing the guerillas of Fallujah, along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the surgically-defined blast radius.
Given the nature of war, the use of euphemisms designed to disguise its horros is inevitable. But awareness of these euphemisms is widespread, and critics inevitably cover relatively familiar ground.
Poole’s most striking contributions relate to words that most of us use positively, without any careful consideration of their meaning, such as ‘community’ and ‘reform’. No-one could be opposed to say, ‘reforms promoting community-based care’. But this phrase could be, and has been, used to describe policies of dumping mentally ill patients on to the street without any adequate means of support.
As Poole observes, the word ‘community’ summons up an image of ‘an idealised country village of a few hundred inhabitants at most … a place where, as in the TV series Cheers everybody knows your name’. In reality, few people today are members of a community in this sense, and the implied picture is no more representative of a real village than Cheers is of a real bar.
There’s an interesting contrast here with ‘society’ which has much the same referent as ‘the community’, but lacks many of the feelgood connotations. It’s a cliché to say that ‘society is to blame’ for this or that, but it would seem incongruous to say ‘the community is to blame’.
The other characteristic feature of the term ‘community’ is its use in various forms of identity and interest group politics. Thus, it is commonplace to refer to the Greek community, the gay community, the business community and so on. In some cases, this usage conveys an unspoken essentialist claim, that, a person is defined by their membership of the particular community in question. But few of us are willing to accept this claim, as applied to ourselves. As Poole observes, to the extent that we are members of any community in this sense, we are members of many, reflecting social class, occupation, ethnicity, religion, gender and many other things.
In practice, therefore, use of the term ‘community’ is more commonly associated with a type of politics in which groups and leaders claiming to represent particular communities play a major role. The unspoken assumption is that a person’s political concerns can be partitioned into sets of issues based on membership of particular groups, and mediated through the (largely self-appointed) leaders of those groups. Most commonly, when the term ‘community’ is used group membership is ascribed, rather being than the result of a conscious decision to join an organisation, such as a union or association. This approach to politics has benefits as well as costs, but it should not be smuggled into debate through the use of terms like ‘community’.
As an example of Unspeak, ‘reform’ is even more striking. ‘ The word has always embodied an unspoken theory of history, which explains why it is almost invariably taken to imply change for the better.
Its orginal meaning, still alive in references to the Reformation was to restore something to its original form. Luther and other reformers saw themselves as sweeping away centuries of abuses to restore, as far as possible, the primitive purity of the church. In this sense, the term ‘reform’ fits naturally with the view of history derived from Plato and from the Christian doctrine of the Fall, as one of decline from an ideal state. The reformer may partially restore the ideal, undoing some of the damage of time, but can never improve on it. Theories of history as decline were dominant until the 18th century. Swift’s Battle of the Books marked their end, though with his characteristic pessimism, Swift gave the palm to the Ancients over the Moderns.
From the Enlightenment onwards, ‘reform’ underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better. The term was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. Although the details changed, the general direction of policy implied by the term was unambigous, implying a greater role for the state and a more egalitarian distribution of power and income.
Since the late 20th century, however, progressive theories of history have come to seem less possible. The seemingly inevitable movement towards greater power for workers and the replacement of capitalism by some form of socialism came to a halt in the 1970s, and went into reverse under governments like those of Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Reagan in the United States.
This pattern obviously creates a problem for the term ‘reform’, since most of the policies now being advocated under that banner, such as ‘industrial relations reform’ or ‘microeconomic reform’ consist, in large measure, of the reversal of previous reforms. This creates an obvious problem for anyone who wishes to refer to these policies without accepting the implicit assumption that they are beneficial.
A variety of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform” are available. The Internet allows the option of hyperlinking the word to a lengthy gloss pointing out the unspoken assumptions. None of these is satisfactory, leaving the options of avoiding the term altogether or hoping that repeated exposure to unpleasant instances of reform will eventually erode its favorable connotations. Until then, as Poole observes,‘the very word argues efficiently in favour of itself, in paradigmatic Unspeak fashion.
There’s plenty more, as the chapter titles indicate: Nature, Tragedy, Operations, Terror, Abuse, Freedom and Extremism are all familiar terms laden with unspoken assumptions. Even if we can never escape entirely from the conceptual frames attached to words, it is better to struggle to understand and clarify our language than to give up the fight and join the creators of Unspeak.