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Unravelling Johann Hari

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

Sound familiar?

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!

“Climate change.”

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!

  1. 1  Alex  September 7, 2009, 9:54 am 

    I rather like this bit:

    “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.

    All good so far. You mention context, or lack thereof, you jam well have to give the mf context.

    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.

    You might expect him to actually post the context here, so his dear readers can make up their minds. You’d be wrong. (Though to be honest, I have to say makes perfect sense to me, even out of context).

  2. 2  Steven  September 7, 2009, 10:22 am 

    You’re right that he ought to have explained what the context is or isn’t. When you read it [pdf], though, it’s obvious that Chapman’s line is exactly the glib provocation that it already seemed to be when cited on its own (even if they were having a serious discussion about Bataille at the time yadda yadda), so Hari is basically right on the particular point.

    On the other hand! Hari whines:

    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?

    As far as I can tell, Roberts never said exactly that the massacre was “necessary”. Hari’s original piece on the subject says:

    In his book A History Of The English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, [Roberts] says that after Dyer shot down the peaceful crowd, “[i]t was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the entire region”. He later comments: “Today’s reactions to Dyer’s deed are of course uniformly damning … but if the Amritsar district, Punjab region or southern India generally had carried on in revolt, many more than 379 people would have lost their lives.”

    This is accurate and not misleading quotation, as one can tell from consulting page 151 of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 on amazon. But it does not say what Hari now says it says, ie that the massacre was “necessary”. That really is quoting out of context: picking the word “necessary” out of one sentence and elevating a possible inference to the status of a statement not in fact made by Roberts. So!

  3. 3  Alex  September 7, 2009, 10:24 am 

    it’s obvious that Chapman’s line is exactly the glib provocation that it already seemed to be when cited on its own

    Well, not just that, it seemed to me to be a comment on the function of their glib provocations, as much as a glib provocation in itself. Basically that they provide a social service in terms of something for angry people to yell at. Not exactly how I’d put it myself mind.

  4. 4  Steven  September 7, 2009, 10:25 am 

    I can accept that it is a meta-glib-provocation?

  5. 5  Alex  September 7, 2009, 10:27 am 

    If there is something as a metaglib, that’s what it is.

  6. 6  Alex  September 7, 2009, 10:27 am 

    *such a thing as

  7. 7  Steven  September 7, 2009, 11:44 am 

    I like the shorthand “a metaglib”. I’m sure it will come in useful in future.

  8. 8  Gregor  September 7, 2009, 3:11 pm 

    ‘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’

    Though the standard of Hari’s article does demonstrate why discourse analysis is too important to be left to opinion columnists…especially opinion columnists who hate post-modernism.

    Hari has such an incessantly shrill and self-righteous tone that often he is tempting to disagree with, even when he is not entirely wrong: and I do agree with him on many issues. I’m not a fan of faith-schools myself- though he implies that modern British secular culture is a default normal position when I do not think it is, and Hari comes up with a ridiculous caricature

    ‘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.’

    So they are indoctrinated without reading the texts? And the ‘purveyors of the phrase’ want to implant the phrase ‘faith schools’ very deeply in their heads? Whilst he gives credit, his ‘own’ example in this case was taken from Richard Dawkins. What I find most astounding is that Hari has a 1st class honours in philosophy, yet has almost non-existent debating skills. He speaks of ‘evidence’ for religious faith which is a contradiction in terms. Yet then he creates a caricature of a ‘faith school’ child which is not based on evidence. That is not to say that his characterisation is wrong in every case, though I do not think it is always accurate either.

  9. 9  Steven  September 7, 2009, 3:48 pm 

    Yes. I think the trouble is that Hari doesn’t realize that calling “faith schools” “SUPERSTITION INDOCTRINATION CENTRES!!!” would not be the most neutral possible language either.

  10. 10  Gregor  September 7, 2009, 4:57 pm 

    It is true that he speaks of politically loaded arguments whilst using deeply subjective language himself. I don’t know how universal he thinks the term ‘dead babies’ should be. I remember during the Middle East conflict that a Jewish woman from an illegal settlement was shot dead with her kids and the Zionist right related this story in very emotional terms to essentially try and shame critics of Israeli expansionism/ supporters of Palestinians. Don’t know what Hari thought of that. (this isn’t to deny that it was horrific the children were killed, but that emotive language is often used to attack those of a different viewpoint).

  11. 11  Tom  September 7, 2009, 7:13 pm 

    I wasn’t aware of the Steve Fuller flap. I love that he rails against people dismissing him out of hand based on his background, then mentions that you did a review of his book, but then, you’re mainly known for writing pertaining to videogames, so can safely be dismissed out of hand.

  12. 12  Steven  September 7, 2009, 11:05 pm 

    Quite! Oh, Fuller also said that I was “part of an earlier lynch mob” raised against him on Crooked Timber, which claim shows exactly the same regard for truth as his whole book does.

  13. 13  dsquared  September 8, 2009, 6:35 am 

    Gregor: Hari has typically been very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause so I suspect he would have agreed with you.

    Ahhhh Steve Fuller, I don’t think anyone on CT is overjoyed with that saga. The thing was, we kept on trying to calm down that lynch mob. We’d invited him a couple of times to talk about science studies because most of us liked “Kuhn Vs Popper”. He wrote a slightly provocative but not totally terrible article about intelligent design, with predictably incendiary consequences – I remember wasting most of an evening deleting nasty comments. Then he came back for seconds and thirds, and started attacking the staff in a particularly mean way. After a while, we just gave up; there’s only so far you can go in protecting a man from the consequences of his own personality.

  14. 14  Steve Fuller  October 4, 2009, 10:00 am 

    I’ve just been told about this discussion, and I don’t want to inflame anyone here, but I just want to make three points:

    1) Yes, quoting is by definition ‘out of context’ but that doesn’t exonerate all sins. I realize that Steven works on a very small canvas when he reviews, but you might try to give a sense of why the author might say such seemingly outrageous things as I apparently did, even if you radically disagree with them. Of course, if the point of your review was merely to vent your outrage and hostility, then you succeeded admirably.

    2) As for my videogames remark in response to Steven’s review on CT, that was fair game, given the aspersions he cast on my being a philospher of science. As a matter of fact, I actually think people should be allowed to talk about anything they want. (I have no particular axe to grind against video games people!) God knows, Richard Dawkins’ output on theology, Daniel Dennett’s on anything outside philosophy of mind or Steven Pinker’s on anything outside of developmental linguistics would otherwise be severely curtailed — and we wouldn’t want that! However, if people insist on invoking, or insinuating, matters of relating to expertise, then it’s fair to ask who are they to judge expertise.

    3) As for CT, well, what can I say, dsquared, you guys are not as liberal as you pretend to be. There is really a very strong anti-religious, and specifically anti-Christian, bigotry on that blog, at least in matters relating to evolution/religion/ID arise — and I am not part of every discussion of these matters. Religious people are always presumed stupid if they are making anti-evolutionary claims, and the burden of proof is always on them not simply to prove their case, but to prove their intelligence. My nastiness is simply a reflection of what I receive from your interlocutors. Maybe you’re filtering out even still nastier claims, but how am I supposed to know that? In any case, the fact that things remain so nasty even if after filtering merely reinforces my point about bigotry. Of course, you might say that it might be most sensible for me to bugger off altogether. Yes, I know. And if I were a religious believer, I might because I wouldn’t want to be exposed to all these nasty challenges. But I’m not such a person. However, I am someone who is outraged by bigotry in all its forms, especially when it comes from self-proclaimed liberals.

  15. 15  cian  October 5, 2009, 7:59 pm 

    Steve Fuller above:
    As for my videogames remark in response to Steven’s review on CT, that was fair game, given the aspersions he cast on my being a philospher of science.

    What Steve Poole actually wrote:
    “It’s intellectual quackery like this that gives philosophy of science a bad name.”

    Not really an aspersion on your chosen profession, is it. There’s nothing in the article to suggest that he’s even particularly hostile towards STS.

    You behaved like a total dick during that CT saga, incidentally. Sad, I liked some of your early work.

  16. 16  Steve Fuller  October 6, 2009, 8:34 pm 

    And how exactly did I behave like a total dick? And try to answer the question without presuming its obviousness. Take your time.

  17. 17  Cian O'Connor  October 7, 2009, 4:19 pm 

    You were rude, boorish, condescending, attacked the staff. That kind of thing. If you want details, tough, its been too long. I don’t particularly care if I convince you one way or the other. If you want to go through life thinking you have a winning online personality, be my guest. Maybe you’re not like that in person. I hope so, I prefer to think people are nice.

    In the science wars I was largely on Latour’s side so this is purely personal, incidentally. I thought the way many of the commentators responded (even if the written piece was weak) was pretty disgraceful. Ordinarily you’d have my sympathies there.

  18. 18  Steve Fuller  October 7, 2009, 8:34 pm 

    I’m not sure what written piece you’re talking about or whether you’ve actually read it, but frankly I don’t know how you expect someone to deal with boneheaded, uninvited abuse, even when it comes from self-regarding liberals. Sometimes people deserve a dose of their own medicine. (If there was some penetrating criticism contained in the abuse, it never got through.) And by the way, the worst thing that happened in the Science Wars was that ‘our side’ (i.e. the side that presumably includes you, me and Latour on a good day) rolled over when the Sokal Hoax came along. You’re right, of course, one should try not to be abusive on-line. But it’s advice that even liberals should follow.

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