May 11, 2007


Steven Poole is a British journalist, and the author of Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality. The publisher sent me a review copy when it first came out last year, but I never wrote anything about it. My problems with the book began at the start of the second paragraph:

What do the phrases 'pro-choice', 'tax relief', and 'Friends of the Earth' have in common? They are all names that contain political arguments.

This sent me back to the publisher's blurb on the front flap of the dust-jacket:

What do the phrases "pro-life," "intelligent design," and the "war on terror" have in common? Each of them is a name for something that smuggles in a highly charged political opinion.

The textual substitution is simple, but the diagnosis is complicated. I wondered whether the three right-wing misdemeanors in the jacket blurb ("pro-life", "intelligent design", "war on terror") were in Poole's original text, which was then edited to create a balance of two left against one right ("pro-choice" and "Friends of the Earth" vs. "tax relief"); or whether the Grove Press publicist, perceiving that the book's natural audience was on the left, made the substitution in the other direction, in order to improve the blurb's market appeal.

Whatever its source, this double-image text stuck in my mind as I read Unspeak last year. Overall, the book was clearly aimed at a left-wing audience, picking up on recent unhappiness with the right's rhetorical success. In other words, a recap of Lakoff on framing (see "It's about ideas, not words", 7/23/2004; "Frames and messages", 9/4/2004). However, Poole decided not to follow Lakoff's line, which I might caricature as "my misleadingly evocative phrases can beat up your misleadingly evocative phrases". Instead, he gives apparently even-handed advice about how to recognize and resist misleadingly evocative phrases, and why journalists in particular should avoid and even oppose them.

Obviously, Poole couldn't present this advice with a straight face if all the examples of misleading language were drawn from only one end of the political spectrum. Still, I got the distinct impression that his main motivation was anger at perceived sins of right-wing rhetoric -- just as Milton gives Satan all the best lines, so Poole gives the right all the worst ones -- and that the examples of misleading rhetoric from left of center were stuck in pro forma.

I considered blogging about this, leading with the curious name-substitution documented above. But I decided to let it go. Poole has made no secret of his political allegiances, and, I thought, he might genuinely be trying to be even-handed, rather than simply dressing up a political argument in apolitical clothing. After all, he opens with the Confucian parable about rectification of names:

A long time ago in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and then said, well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things. His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companions foolishness, and explained. When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, people don't know what to do.

And he closes by explicitly differentiating himself from George Lakoff (p. 237):

Having witnessed the virtuoso use of Unspeak by the Bush administration, some liberals in the US desperately want to catch up in the rhetorical arms race. Studying the work on how different terms 'frame' arguments by such linguists as George Lakoff, the Democrats hit on a counter-strategy: to burnish and sharpen their own language until it became as steely and weaponized as that of the opposition. [...]

Linguist Ranko Bugarski argues, by contrast: 'What is needed in replacement of "Warspeak" is not an equally crude and militant "Peacespeak", but judicious use of normal language, allowing for fine-grained selection and discrimination, for urbanity and finesse.' What counts as 'normal language', of course, is already subject to ideological disagreement. But the sentiment is admirable, even if it describes an unlikely ideal. Politicians will go on trying their luck with all the rhetorical strategies in their pockets. But we should at the very least expect, and demand, that our newspapers, radio and television refuse to replicate and spread the Unspeak virus. As BBC World presenter Kirsty Lang explains: 'It's much easier to take the language that's given to you, and the government knows that full well.' ... The citizen's plan of action is simple. When the media do this, talk back: write and tell them. Possibly the growth of Unspeak cannot be reversed. But that doesn't mean we have to go on swallowing it.

OK, I thought, that sounds fair.

Still, I couldn't shake the impression that Poole's commitment to Confucian "reasonable" speech was insincere -- a position adopted as a rhetorical gambit, because it provides a convenient platform from which to attack the rhetorical sins of his political enemies. On the other hand, I worried that this might be unfair to him. And I'm no fan of the view that there's no reality behind rhetoric (see "Spinning Fish: Mullahs defend Herodotus", 5/8/2007).

So I couldn't come to grips with the book -- given its topic, the difference between its implicit message and its explicit content created a disorienting sort of implicitly self-referential hall-of-mirrors regression -- and I never reviewed it.

But I was reminded of this again, a couple of weeks ago, when I read a post about astronomy on Poole's Unspeak blog ("Super-Earth: Like the Earth, only super", 4/26/2007). In context -- that is, on a blog plugging a book about "judicious use of normal language" in political discourse -- it's a remarkable document:

In galactic news: scientists peering through a massive Chilean telescope have found “the most Earth-like planet outside our Solar System to date, a world which could have water running on its surface”. It’s the first exoplanet ever detected that might support life-as-we-know-it. They call it . . . super-Earth!

It’s inspiring to imagine a planet stuffed with super-aliens, like Superman, as long as they don’t embark on any kind of interstellar “migration” to come here and steal all our jobs.

But then I began to worry: surely a “super-Earth” is exactly like the real Earth, only super? In which case, as a super-parallel-world, it must already boast figures such as a super-”Melanie Phillips” and a super-Cheney, frothing demagogic evilists at least twelve feet tall. Cosmic terror-flash! But here the language is, thankfully, deceptive. Reckoned to have a radius 1.5 times that of Earth but a mass five times greater,“super-Earth” will have much stronger gravity, which ought to mean, ceteris paribus, that its inhabitants are in general smaller. So with any luck, to us, super-”Melanie” would look like a tiny frothing dwarf. As with so much astronomical news, that puts things in heartening perspective.

The idea here seems to be that "super-Earth", like "tax relief", is "a name that contains [an]... argument". The astronomers' language, he tells us, is "deceptive". But in this case, all the "highly charged political opinion" is being smuggled into the discussion by Poole himself.

Like Poole, Melanie Phillips is a British journalist. Like Poole, she is no stranger to political controversy. Like Poole, she was neither mentioned nor implied in any of the stories about the newly-discovered planet orbiting Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. Unlike Poole, she supported the Iraq war. She's most strongly associated with the argument made in her book Londonistan, which argues that "the collapse of traditional British identity and accommodation of a particularly virulent form of multiculturalism" have created a serious problem -- and this seems to be the issue that has taken her, along with some other British intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens to a place where one of her former colleagues on the Guardian pairs her with Dick Cheney as "frothy demagogic evilists" on super-Earth, and rejoices that she is not 12 feet tall but rather "a tiny frothing dwarf".

This is "urbanity and finesse"?

No. Whether or not you agree with Melanie Phillips' views, this is "a kind of invasive procedure [that] wants to bypass critical thinking and implant a foreign body of opinion directly in the soft tissue of the brain". That's quoted from the Epilogue of Poole's book -- it's his definition of Unspeak, summing up what he thinks he's taught us over the previous 237 pages.

Of course, if you agree with Poole's politics, or if you like to see short women with strong opinions put in their place, you'll find his riff on super-Melanie funny. It's certainly a clever example of the kind of political rhetoric that aims to dismiss opponents with ridicule. You can find vast supplies of lesser-quality examples on sites like Daily Kos or Free Republic, depending on your political preferences. Or you could read more of the Unspeak blog.

So it turns out that my instincts were right. Unspeak illustrates La Rochefoucauld's maxim that "L'hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu" ("Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue"). Poole's goal was not the promotion of reasonable language in political discourse, but rather the unilateral rhetorical disarmament of his political enemies.

All the same, I refuse to accept Stanley Fish's view that there is nothing beyond rhetoric, and that "reality ... will emerge when one of the competing accounts ... proves so persuasive that reality is identified with its descriptions". Poole's concerns were valid, even if he himself doesn't believe or practice what he preaches.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2007 07:28 AM