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Some Unspeak about Unspeak™

It would not do for me to leave all those cherry-picked glowing citations from the press on the reviews page with no counterweight. So let me balance, as it were, the account by discussing some of the negative things said about the book.

Many of the hostile comments about Unspeak™ simply got the book wrong, in one way or another. The most blatant and sorrowful example of this came from a certain Kevin McCardle, writing in London’s Metro newspaper (February 8), who complained:

Although he has interesting and provocative (if not always entirely persuasive) things to say about how words such as ‘community’ or ‘freedom’ can be loaded into an argument to press a case subliminally, he isn’t averse to a little rhetorical sleight-of-hand himself – and sometimes he gets it completely wrong. He argues that a ‘member of a state air force’ should not be called a terrorist, even though anyone who has heard of Halabja would disagree . . .

Do I argue that a member of a state air force should not be called a terrorist? In fact, I do not. In the passage from which McCardle lifts a single phrase, I discuss the idea that a “terrorist” might be someone who has a bomb and no airplane, or an airplane and no bomb. But not both:

If you have both a bomb and an airplane, you are a member of a state air force, and so of course you cannot be a ‘terrorist’. [p134]

This comes after a rather lengthy section in which I have argued that state’s exclusion of their own actions from any definition of “terrorism” is untenable, and in which I have quoted a member of the Israeli air force describing his own actions as “terrorist”. I had some faith that, by the time I wrote the sentence quoted above, the “of course” would alert the reader to the irony of my formulation. This faith, it appears, was rather optimistic, in the case of Mr McCardle. Not only does he accuse me of arguing something when I in fact argue the opposite, he backs up his woozy indignation with what you might say is rather a glib reference to Halabja, in the manner of a drunk who thinks that the incantation of a name constitutes a QED.

Let us leave poor Mr McCardle, whose mistake may be said to be a simple matter of dumb incomprehension, and turn to others whose attacks were somewhat more sophisticated. One way to review a book, for example, is to ask questions and to pretend that the book offers no answers to them, even though it does. Writing in the Guardian (February 11), Alastair Campbell took this tack:

Poole doesn’t like ‘community support officers’, dismissing them as ‘a second-class cadre of policemen’. Where is the Unspeak there – his in making clear his disdain for the whole concept, or the government’s in trying to describe something new in an understandable and accurate way?

“Where is the Unspeak”? It is as though I never explained it in the book; as though I am merely sniping at a policy. One might forgive Mr Campbell for accidentally having skipped a page, were the explanation of the Unspeak not on the same page as the description he quotes. Here it is:

Later on, a second-class cadre of policemen was introduced by Blair’s Home Secretary, David Blunkett, under the name ‘community support officers’: they would contribute, he said, to the ‘endeavour […] to face down the antisocial and thuggish behaviour that bedevils our streets, parks and open spaces’. CSOs were much cheaper than real policemen, went out on the beat after only four weeks’ initial training, and were advised to avoid ‘dangerous situations’, according to an undercover reporter who trained as such an officer. Walking away was a novel way to ‘face down’. But never mind: the very repetition of their name – ‘community support officers’ – sounded pleasantly reassuring in Parliament and on TV. Everyone loves support, just as everyone loves a community. [p38]

Rather than arguing with this passage, as a reasonable person might wish to, Mr Campbell simply pretends it doesn’t exist, a strategy he follows consistently throughout his review. (If the reader needs a reminder of Mr Campbell’s attitude to language and truth, she may consult this entry in my blog.)

In a similar vein, the review in the Spectator, by Graham Stewart (February 18), took a fascinatingly disingenuous route to making a patently false claim:

Can it be – as the casual reader might assume – that human rights activists, NGOs and liberal interest groups do not also deploy words in a manner that advertises their virtues but not their vices?

Let us assume that, as the reviewer for such an august publication as the Spectator, Mr Stewart read Unspeak™ in a more than “casual” way. But this leads us to a contradiction. For if he did indeed read it in a more than casual way, he cannot have failed to notice that the book does indeed discuss many uses of Unspeak by such groups as those he mentions, from “pro-choice” to “Greenpeace”. This fact about the book unfortunately did not fit with Mr Stewart’s theory that I was simply writing a left-wing screed – or following, as he subtly put it, a “right-wing conspiracy script” – and so he very carefully tried to mislead his readers about what the book contained, while ascribing the false view to a “casual reader” in order to distance himself personally from the lie.

Mr Stewart even attempted the hoary old trick of trying to refute the author with the author’s own research, leaving out a crucial piece of information. Thus:

Already in danger of becoming a bore, Poole tips over the edge when he fulminates against the Western media’s use of the ‘maximally brutal and disgusting’ sounding ‘Scud’ – when Saddam’s missile was actually a modified version of the ‘SS-1b Scud-A’.

Though it is quite possible that I am often in danger of becoming a bore, Mr Stewart has left something out. The relevant passage in the book runs as follows:

The notorious Scud missile of Saddam Hussein was actually christened ‘Scud’ by the West. The weapon was first developed by the Soviets in the 1960s, under the less evocative designation R-11; Nato referred to it as the ‘SS-1b Scud-A’. The Iraqi military later heavily modified the design, but it was useful to keep the name Scud so as to make it sound maximally brutal and disgusting. [p119]

Mr Stewart tries to imply that I am merely being silly, complaining about calling the “SS-1b Scud-A” the “Scud” for short. He somehow forgets to note the extra fact that the missile was designated “R-11” by its designers and only nicknamed “Scud” by Western observers. Another sly suppression of inconvenient material.

Mr Stewart, though, is having too much fun to stop:

Say what you will about Donald Rumsfeld, but can the current President of the United States really be a Texan Joe Goebbels of language manipulation? This, after all, is the man who reacted to news that hijacked airliners had slammed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by referring to the perpetrators as ‘folks’.

Is Mr Stewart serious? Can he really be under the illusion that Mr Bush’s words are not extremely carefully scripted by an army of writers? His second sentence, with its triumphant “after all”, appears to be appealing to a new fact in order to refute my argument. However, Mr Stewart has learned this fact, again, from my book, where you, gentle reader, may find some remarks devoted to Mr Bush’s curious mélange of the homely and the apocalyptic in his appellation of the 9-11 hijackers as “evil folks”.

Let us leave Mr Stewart’s dishonest ranting behind us, and turn to milder phenomena. Someone writing about Unspeak™ may also, it seems, forget to acknowledge that he has taken certain things from the book. So Barry Didcock, writing in the Sunday Herald (February 5) after interviewing me over the telephone, finished his feature by observing that we can add some examples of misleading political language to those George Orwell wrote about:

So, allow me to propose a few 21st century candidates: ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘smart bomb’ and ‘surgical strike’ are four to be starting with.

Allow you to propose? Why, Mr Didcock, I could hardly refuse. After all, you have taken them all from my book, in which they are paid lavish attention. Please, be my guest. Propose them yourself as though I had not done so already. I promise not to complain.

Another example of apparently ignoring what is in the book was provided by John Morrish, writing in the Independent on Sunday (February 19). I am grateful for many of Mr Morrish’s observations: in particular, he was one of a very few who noticed that the book works from “a kind of Leavisite close reading”, and he liked the passages on “climate change”, “tragedy” and so on. Sometimes, however, he thought that I went “too far”. An example of my going too far is presented:

It is just silly to say that if there had been Asbos in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft would have received one for attempting suicide by jumping off Putney Bridge.

In the passage of the book to which Mr Morrish refers, I have just recounted the story of a woman who was served with an Asbo in 2003, precisely because she had attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. So is it “just silly” to make the comparison with another woman who jumped off a bridge? It may be many things, but not “just” silly, I think. As it happens, Wollstonecraft was driven out of the country by George III’s outlawing of “seditious” meetings and writings, which was in effect anti-social behaviour legislation avant la lettre.

Mr Morrish has a further criticism:

What is more, it is pure hyperbole to say that anyone using the expression ‘ethnic cleansing’ was guilty of ‘verbal collaboration in mass murder’: most of those who used it were well aware of its status as a grisly euphemism, choosing it to highlight the evil intentions of its originators.

Rather than citing here my lengthy and detailed account of the genesis and subsequent use of “ethnic cleansing”, I am happy to leave the rebuttal of Mr Morrish’s argument (with its curiously confident “most”) to another reviewer, Rafael Behr in the Observer (February 26):

Poole charts the stealthy legitimisation of ‘ethnic cleansing’, which started out as a term liked by the perpetrators of genocide because it hid their crimes in a metaphor of hygiene. By dropping the inverted commas, we adopted the murderers’ point of view. We do not, by contrast, ever refer to the Holocaust as ‘the final solution to the Jewish question’.

Quite so. It is a happy event when an author sees his own argument compacted and restated so well, with an even more telling comparison. For this, I can overlook Mr Behr’s claim that my book in general is “too pessimistic”, and his ringing summation:

There is no doubt that unspeak is among us and that we must guard against it. But we should also allow ourselves a little faith that the truth shines through in the end.

Had I in fact no faith of my own that the truth shines through, I would have been too depressed to finish the book. Indeed, if the truth were not actually available to anyone who cares to look, I could not have written any of the book in the first place. Throughout Unspeak™, I am quite careful to point out that I do not think Unspeak will always succeed in pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

It remains to observe the comic spectacle of three separate reviewers deciding to review the dustjacket. The author’s biography on the inside back cover reveals that I live in Paris, a fact that was apparently too delicious for some critics to ignore. For Bloomberg reviewer James Pressley (February 14), the book’s character was explained by the geographical location in which it was written:

He lives in Paris, which may help explain why ‘Unspeak’ reads like a book from a French pop philosopher.

Sure, it may help explain it, if in fact Unspeak™ does actually read like a book from a French pop philosopher. I cannot help wondering, though, how many books by French pop philosophers Mr Pressley has actually read. It is possible that he has read the entire works of Bernard-Henri Lévy; but with the greatest respect to BHL, I cannot see much similarity between his work and mine.

Stephen Price, writing in Ireland’s Sunday Business Post, thought my living in Paris had another function:

His base abroad gives him a much clearer appreciation of linguistic precision than those of us dwelling in Anglophone countries.

This is so flattering that I hardly want to disown it, but I certainly would not claim that I had a much clearer appreciation of linguistic precision than, say, Frank Kermode, or Christopher Ricks.

Lastly, Mr Campbell, of course, was not surprised:

I note from the sleeve that Steven Poole lives in Paris, where he presumably frequents lively left-bank restaurants where budding artists and authors can scribble original thoughts and doodles on thick paper tablecloths.

Mr Campbell shows an admirable restraint in not presuming further that I habitually cycle around Place de la Concorde wearing a stripy sweater, with a string of onions around my neck. If only he knew.

  1. 1  Dave Trouba  April 29, 2007, 5:24 pm 

    Fantastic book. Should be required reading at all high schools and universities. Keep up the good work!

  2. 2  Steven  May 1, 2007, 12:54 am 

    Thanks Dave. I agree :)

  3. 3  William Beetstra  May 1, 2007, 7:29 pm 

    Read it. Respect your work. Thank you.

    It’s similar to the compression of an entire myth into a symbol, almost as if the myth were the inner “grammar” of the symbol. Respond to the symbol and enact the myth. The premises of that action are likely to be “prejudicial” in nature. Disentangling the full significance of a symbol or phrase ends up a lot of struggle with one’s own unconscious processes or an immediate power conflict with someone else’s “consciousness.”

    If, for example, I’m called a “secularist” or a “secular humanist” by someone who resents my refusal to participate in his religion-sourced language, then I’m not “sacred.” “Not sacred” becomes not the complement but the opposite of sacred, and therefore potentially sacriligious, blasphemous, even evil.

    “Potentially” soon becomes “actually,” and I, the person so labelled, become not simply someone who disagrees and has every right to do so, but someone who “hates” religion, and, inasmuch as I hate, act to make the religious “victims” of “prejudice” and “reverse bigotry.”

    At once, my claims are denied, my denials dismissed, and I become someone forced to defend the indefensible, namely a view devoid of religious premises and convictions, and, by the same token, an offender against someone else’s undeniable right to “faith,” one who victimizes religionists rather than someone defending himself from religious oppression. From intellectual “freedom of religion” implying “freedom from another’s religion” to the “no freedom from it” necessary to secure freedom of religion itself is now self-justified by “unspeak.”

    If I concede any of this, then my interlocutor will demand the next concession. If I don’t concede the contest, then it’s proof of his contention, and he’ll continue the contest. Either I lose something of my position or I lose what effort I’ve put into expounding it. I am to be forced into a choice between two forms of loss and my opponent can freely choose between two forms of rhetorical aggression. It’s precisely this that’s the foundation of rhetoric in the service of power: to put the opponent in rhetorical checkmate.

    Whenever I encounter this “double bind” (and there are many, many quasi-identical expressions), I take it that I’m in a power contest and nothing else but, and one in which all argumentative proprieties are to be cast aside. After all, if the power-seeker has the benefit of both duplicity and veracity, and I’m stuck with burden of proof, the power-hungry has a possibly insuperable advantage. Whether it’s ethnic struggle, political strife, or economic competition, it doesn’t change.

    A word or a symbol can be manipulated with such quickness, such unconscious effect, involve so much recovery on my part, that my labored account of what’s wrong or meaningless becomes a bit like trying to patch together a broken egg and make it fit again for a hen to hatch. The sheer destructiveness of unspeak is unspeakable.

    Power needs this inconsistency to perpetrate itself. After all, allow one inconsistency and anything can ultimately be proved. The other–as you’ve noted–depends on incompleteness (the “God of the Gaps)in which nothing becomes a proof for everything.

    There’s no evidence to prove UFOs are here? That’s because it was hidden. The fact that it can’t be found is proof that it was found and that there’s a conspiracy to conceal it all. If the aliens did it, then we need to mobilize to battle them to save mankind, even save them from mankind. If the “government” did it, then we need to battle the “government,” and if aliens and the government are in cahoots, then we need to battle them both. Of course, to battle a conspiracy, we need a conspiracy. Conspiring against someone is now fully justified self-defense, and very altruistic at that, heroic even. Government secrecy–nice piece of unspeak.

    A little incompleteness can do as much as inconsistency. The real and rational get denied, fictions and fallacies become the currency of the debate. All very helpful if the purpose is to win at all costs.

    Thanks so much for the pleasure your book gave me.

    Bill Beetstra

  4. 4  Paul Abbott  June 10, 2007, 5:30 pm 


    However temporarily, Unspeak has restored my faith in criticism. Put it this way: along with Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, Unspeak is the book I plan to steal from my college library when I graduate this summer.

    In case no one’s told you, Unspeak has now become “recommended reading” on the English undergraduate course at Oxford Uni. Specifically for Paper One of finals – the history/theory of the English language.


    Paul Abbott

  5. 5  Leinad  June 11, 2007, 8:58 am 

    *joins in on the love-in*

    Mr Poole, your book frankly rocks the proverbial Casbah. For me it was the extra piece that completed a number of puzzles (in the process revealing others) that had been troubling me regarding rhetoric and the increasingly foggy language that characterises public discourse.

    Your prose style is simple and clear without any loss of eloquence, and the sarcasm and pisstaking are much appreciated — especially when targeted at the avalanche of sanctimonious bollocks that seems to spew from every politician and think tank’s press office (not to mention the corners of the Internet still engaged in sundry Greatest Intellectual Struggles of the Age).

    Your efforts have amused and inspired, and I can’t wait for Unspeak 2: Escape From Londonistan (lemme know if you need casting tips. My people will talk to your people.)

  6. 6  Steven  June 15, 2007, 1:56 pm 

    Belated thanks for the very kind comments!

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