Unravelling Johann Hari
September 7, 2009
Johann Hari is worried about the English language. ((Thanks to dsquared.)) What in particular is he worried about?
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
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.
Um, no they don’t: Pentagon press releases still regularly feature the phrase “collateral damage”. But never mind the facts; let’s get on with the argument!
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.
“Thousands”? I think this belongs alongside Slavoj Zizek‘s “infinite number of pop-cultural references” in the annals of “arithmetically challenged statements by Johann Hari”. But I am delighted to find Unspeak described as “useful”, even if to call a book “useful” is not to say it is good or interesting, but merely to indicate that one has found it handy — perhaps, for example, when casting around for a topic for one’s opinion column. Anyway! What are some of Hari’s own examples of Unspeak?
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.
Well, it is a gratifying departure from the norm, if that is what is happening. The problem with the label “Fair Trade” if considered as Unspeak is, rather, that it discourages any close investigation into whether the practices so labelled are indeed fair. If you criticize “Fair Trade”, you’re an unfair plutocrat. Perhaps you are even “pissing on an African child”. Moving swiftly on…
“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.
You know, I’m not really sure that “infant mortality” is trying to hide anything at all. After all, bodies that report on “infant mortality”, such as the WHO and UNICEF, do seem to have an agenda of trying to reduce the number of dead babies lying around. Still, Hari’s way of translating the phrase is certainly arresting:
…they might say in passing, “Infant mortality fell.” The phrase that tells the truth is: hundreds of thousands of babies stopped dying.
Hundreds of thousands of babies stopped dying? The babies that were in the process of dying decided not to die after all? Next!
This is another one of Hari’s “own examples”, apparently, though there are eight pages devoted to it in the book of mine that he found “useful”.
This phrase was invented by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, when he discovered that focus groups found the phrase “global warming” too scary.
Perhaps a closer reading of Unspeak might have been even more “useful” here. Luntz did not invent the phrase “climate change”.
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.
Unfortunately, it’s clear by now that Hari is confusing “honest” with “argumentative, but on my side of the argument”. The “unravelling of the ecosystem”? I do enjoy the image of the ecosystem as a massive woolly jumper: you pull on one thread and the whole thing falls apart. To “unravel” something, however, can also be to understand it: to disentangle a knotty mystery. But is it “honest” to say that global warming will result in (is already resulting in) “the unravelling of the ecosystem” in the sense of the wholesale destruction of the biosphere? Of course not. Some ecosystems as we know them will no doubt change profoundly in adaptation to new conditions, and this will not necessarily be to the greater convenience of human beings; but this is very different from the apocalyptic and irreversible implication of the (singular) ecosystem “unravelling”, a process which presumably would end in the cessation of life on the planet. Hari’s preferred phrase is Unspeak itself, and the kind of unproductive exaggeration that presents easy fodder for shills and deniers.
But all is not lost! I can at least heartily agree with Hari’s last example:
“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.
Quite so. One might even add that to quote something is by definition to lift it out of context; otherwise one would be obliged to cite an entire page, chapter or book at once. After I reviewed the appalling Steve Fuller’s “book”, Dissent Over Descent, for example, he accused me of having “cherry-picked some suitably outrageous quotes to put the book in the worst possible light”. Actually, to put his screed in the worst possible light I would have had to quote the entire volume word by word. Happily for Guardian readers, there wasn’t space.
At any rate, I think we can all agree that Unspeak is certainly something worth trying to unravel, and it’s nice to see more people having a go, isn’t it?
In other news, I managed to get my theory of “Melanie Phillips” as a satirist’s sockpuppet into the Guardian on Saturday. Happy rentrée littéraire, readers!