The Devil’s Lexicon
Unspeak exposes the language twisters.
By Jack Shafer / Slate – Jan. 22, 2007.
Unspeak, writer Steven Poole‘s term for a phrase or word that contains a whole unspoken political argument, deserves a place in every journalist’s daily vocabulary. Such gems of unspeak, such as pro-choice and pro-life, writes Poole in the opening pages in his book Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, represent
an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak—in the sense of erasing, or silencing—any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one choice of looking at a problem.
Pro-life supposes that a fetus is a person and that those who are anti-pro-life are against life, he writes. Pro-choice distances its speakers from actually advocating abortion, while casting “adversaries as ‘anti-choice’; as interfering, patriarchal dictators.”
Poole’s list of suspicious phrases rolls on for more than 200 pages. Tax relief and tax burden, which covertly argue that lowered taxes automatically relieve and unburden everybody. Friends of the Earth casts its opponents as enemies of the earth and implies that the Earth is befriendable, a big, huggable Gaia.
Poole cautions readers not to confuse unspeak with doublespeak, a word that grew out of the concepts of Newspeak and doublethink that George Orwell introduced in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Poole writes, “But Unspeak does not say one thing while meaning another. It says one thing while really meaning that one thing,” and the confusion unspeak generates is almost always calculated and deliberate.
Poole calls community one of the most perfect political words in English because it
can mean several things at once, or nothing at all. It can conjure things that don’t exist, and deny the existence of those that do. It can be used in celebration, or in passive-aggressive attack. Its use in public language is almost always evidence of an Unspeak strategy at work.
The plasticity of community allows it to encompass geography, ethnicity, profession, hobby, or religion, and in the mouths of diplomats and journalists can expand to include everybody, as in the international community, a concept that Justice Antonin Scalia once described—rightly—as “fictional.”
We’re drawn to the “semantically promiscuous” word, Poole writes, because it allows us to simultaneously express our tolerance for a group and our discomfort. For example: the homosexual community and the black community. People rarely refer to the heterosexual community, the white community, or even the Christian community, because in the United States and Britain, they are the “default” positions and carry the “privilege of not having to be defined by a limiting ‘identity.’ ” Likewise, a group defined by the majority as transgressive, say, the Ku Klux Klan, would never qualify as a “community” even though it organizes itself with the same conscious effort as the “anti-war community.”
Unspeak concurs with my position that journalists everywhere reject the word reform because it’s become meaningless. He assails the Tories in England who spoke of “bogus asylum seekers” because the phrase destroys any presumption of sincerity, and served as code for “simple racism.” When governments speak of a tragedy, they imply that the bloody results of their work were unforeseen—as if visited upon man by the gods—and nobody can be blamed. Surgical strike conveys the benevolent practice of medicine, ridding a target of its disease. Collateral damage redefines the death of innocents as injury. Smart weapons posit the opposite of dumb weapons that kill indiscriminately. Daisy cutter sanitizes the killing power of the daisy-cutter bomb. Weapons of mass destruction, which earlier referred to the horrific mechanized tools of warfare being stockpiled in the 1930s, now applies to biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons when possessed by nonstate actors or regimes in disfavor.
Unspeak usually flows from the lips of politicians, but news organizations are equally inventive. Poole quotes a Fox News Channel executive who instructed reporters to refer to U.S. “sharpshooters” in Iraq instead of U.S. “snipers,” because snipers was negative. The same Fox News sought to substitute “homicide bombers” for “suicide bombers” because “suicide” gave too much prominence to the attacker.
Poole asks how the war on terror can exist when it’s almost impossible to wage war on a technique; he recoils at the euphemism of detainee abuse, which minimizes physical and psychological violence; and punctures those who dress their acts in the cloths of democracy, freedom, and liberty.
Other suspect phrases and words that Poole takes his cane to: intelligent design. Sound science. Security fence. Regime change. Extremism. Moderate. Coalition forces.
Unlike George Lakoff, who lectures the Democratic Party about the importance of “framing” political debates in order to win them, Poole dismisses this tactic as fighting unspeak with unspeak, as the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” schools demonstrate. Quoting linguist Ranko Bugarski, Poole maintains that what’s needed is “judicious use of normal language, allowing for fine-grained selection and discrimination, for urbanity and finesse,” even though “normal language” is already subject to unending political debate.
As the channel through which politicians, activists, and corporations market their words, reporters are usually the first recipients of new examples of unspeak. Monitoring how they say what they say is as important as reporting precisely what they say. As Poole notes, resisting unspeak isn’t quibbling about semantics. It’s attacking the “chain of reasoning at its base.” Making sense of nonsense is 90 percent of what being a journalist is about. To forewarn readers about unspeak, Poole advises, is to forearm them.
As I read Poole’s book, a couple of examples of unspeak came to me: Accept responsibility. Gridlock. Loopholes. Islamofacism. Send your favorite original examples to email@example.com. I’ll publish the best of them and credit the senders.
Addendum, Jan. 23: No more submissions, please. See the Tuesday “Press Box” column for the readers’ unspeak nominations.
(E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Jack Shafer is Slate‘s editor at large.
Unspeak From the Readers
They find it everywhere.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007, at 5:34 PM ET
At the bottom of Monday’s column, I invited Slate readers to submit the best examples of unspeak they’ve encountered and promised to publish the best of the lot. If you didn’t read the column and have no intention of doing so, let me bring you up to speed.
Unspeak is Steven Poole‘s wicked term for words or phrases that attempt to smuggle a political argument into conversations. Poole’s classic unspeak examples are the phrases pro-life and pro-choice. If a journalist describes an anti-abortion figure as pro-life, he creates a semantic space in which all the pro-lifer’s opponents are necessarily anti-life. If he describes a pro-abortion figure as pro-choice, he similarly reduces the debate to a stick-figure battle between those who make decisions for themselves and those who want to boss others around.
Poole has collected scores of examples and amplified them in his recent book, Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, which should be required reading for reporters and editors everywhere. Other examples of unspeak: community, reform, smart weapons, intelligent design, and collateral damage. (Want to know why they qualify as unspeak? Read Poole’s book, or better yet read my piece from yesterday.)
At this writing, about 260 readers (and counting) have taken the unspeak challenge and submitted their nominations. Many thanks to all who participated, and if you don’t see your name below, it’s because I ran out of time and energy, and not necessarily because your nomination didn’t pass muster.
Even author Poole wrote in, informing me that Islamofascism, which I nominated for unspeak status in my column, had made the postscript of the paperback edition of his book, due at bookstores in April. I asked for a sample of the postscript, and Poole obliged with this:
Islamic fascism suggested that fascism was somehow inherent to Islam, just as with the associated notion of Islamic terrorism. (Few spoke of Christian terrorism when the perpetrators were Christians.) Third, and most excitingly, Islamic fascism allowed the use of dramatic historical analogies. In one speech, [President George W.] Bush inventively compared “the terrorists” to some other “evil and ambitious men,” namely Lenin and Hitler, taking care to remind his audience of the trouble those two had caused. …
[Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] … prowled the stage muttering darkly about the ‘vicious extremists’ who constituted “the rising threat of a new type of fascism.”
At least the phrase “a new type of fascism” was subtler than his boss’s Islamic fascism. The rider “a new type of,” it seemed, was designed to acknowledge the obvious fact that what was under consideration was not “fascism” as hitherto understood, while allowing oneself to say the scary word “fascism” anyway. It was ridiculous to think, Rumsfeld said, that these fascists could be “appeased,” even though no one was actually recommending such a historically disreputable course of action. (It did not take long for some commentators to suggest that the celebrated photograph of a beaming Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 evoked “appeasement” more than anything that serious critics of the “war on terror” were suggesting.)
Criminal defense lawyer Elizabeth Simpson writes in to note the unspeakery of public grousing about defendants getting off on a technicality. “Many times, this ‘technicality’ is the U.S. Constitution. Prosecutors charge people on technicalities all the time, but this word would never be used to describe their tactics.”
Dennis Harrington finds both affirmative action and equal opportunity as code phrases for discrimination and “we’ll take anyone, however useless, as long as they have our preferred gender or skin color,” respectively. Rick Kaempfer, Nick Stern, and John Bisges offer surge. Writes Bisges:
Rather than “troop increase,” which implies an open-ended commitment of more troops to a failing war, a “surge” goes along with the idea of a power surge—a brief burst of energy that overwhelms a circuit’s resistance. Using it in the context of the Iraqi conflict makes it much more palatable: everyone is against a troop “increase,” but a troop “surge” invokes the idea that this is a very temporary burst of soldiers that will quickly overwhelm the insurgency. Perfect because the administration reaps the benefits of the phrase while bearing no responsibility for its misleading characterization of troop redeployment; after all, it’s just a word.
Not everybody played the nomination game as directed. In his e-mail, Jay Heinrichs claims that “Poole’s book title employs the same device he denounces: Using our belief in unfettered speech, he applies a shocking label to the practice of labeling,” adding that Aristotle called what Poole calls unspeak a “commonplace,” the philosopher’s “term or phrase based on the audience’s own beliefs, values and naked self-interest.”
Paul W. Westermeyer diagnoses anti-war as unspeak because it declares “that everyone else is ‘pro-war,’ implying no distinction between supporting a war of defense and a war of aggression.” Progressive also deserves our attention, he writes, because it “implies improvement.”
“The term not incorrect is almost always favored over ‘correct’ because it, while acknowledging undisputed facts, still casts doubt on whatever the opposition is trying to get across, and implies that the fact is a technicality,” writes Robin Snyder.
Terrorist surveillance program is “the preferred term of the Bush administration towards their illegal, warrantless, unsupervised spying of American citizens. It was also the phrase used by Fox News, right wing pundits, and right wing blogs,” writes Joshua Fletcher, calling it a “safe, innocent, sanitized phrase which implied no wrongdoing.”
Linda McIntyre recalls an article from long ago in the New Republic “about the Children’s Defense Fund,” which casts “those not in agreement with CDF’s policy prescriptions as anti-child, a strategy that worked well for the group in terms of politics and fundraising.”
Mass casualty event really describes mass slaughter, writes Michael Billips. “Heritage has become a code word for race,” writes Jeremy Voas. “Since the ’80’s being against deficits means being for something that cannot be said: taxes,” offers Robert Cunningham. Joe Keohane and Tom Stephens find unspeak in the vague phrase support the troops, Ashley Masset nominates smart growth, and Alec Mcausland wants to know where the eggheads get off calling themselves the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Interrogation techniques sanitizes torture, writes Donald DiPaula, and anything that contains the word agenda (homosexual agenda, left-wing agenda, and right-wing agenda) qualifies because it implies the homosexuals, lefties, and righties are “homogenous and in complete internal agreement.” Similarly, about a dozen readers drew their unspeak revolvers whenever encountering the word family anywhere near values, oriented, pro-, or -friendly. Beth Prather brings up the rear with one of my hobbyhorses, the war on drugs, and Carol Kania with the cringe-making stakeholders.
Many readers nominated such unspeak as unlawful combatants and climate change, which are analyzed in Poole’s book. To my great disappointment, nobody finds the phrase net neutrality an example of unspeakableness. Can I get a second out there?
Finally, Keith Benoit suggests that readers listen to the State of the Union address tonight and e-mail me examples of Bush’s unspeak. Excellent idea. If you have the stomach to listen, send your examples to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post the best of the lot.