Finding the Right Words

Former English teachers form the tiniest sliver of the general population, and many of them would never admit that they once made confused and truculent adolescents write essays on what Hamlet’s problem was with his mother and that sweet but dim Ophelia lass, but some of us would admit that we once did something useful. It is important to be able to explain what you mean, to put what you think that you’re thinking into words that others can understand, and that takes practice. Try getting through life saying “Oh, you know what I mean.” That doesn’t cut it. People won’t know what you mean, and pretty soon they’ll figure out you don’t even know what you mean – you don’t even know what you’re thinking. You can’t put it into words? We think with words. You’re a bundle of confused vague emotions, sincere or not – no one can even tell which. You’ll be dismissed as useless. You’ll be isolated from human society, which may be no more than people explaining to each other what they mean, sometimes not very nicely. That’s what sentient beings do. That’s pretty much all that human civilization is, for better or worse.

It may have been cruel, however, to use Shakespeare on the kids, forcing them to figure out what he seemed to be getting at – the language is difficult – but that’s life. Listening to what others say, or reading what they have written, is often a process of figuring out what the hell this person is saying, and what the hell they’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Sometimes they’re toying with you. Sometimes they’re boring, or hysterical. Sometimes they’re a bit contradictory. At least with Shakespeare it’s worth the effort – there’s cool stuff there. And as for making the kids write those essays, that’s just what they needed – practice at deciding what they think and putting it into words – stated clearly, then argued coherently, and supported by logic and precise reference back to the matter at hand. That’s a useful skill, and the skill is transferable. It’s actually more than a useful skill of course. If you can’t put what you’re thinking into words, well, you’re not actually thinking, are you?

This is why former English teachers didn’t find George Bush – the son, not the father – cute and amusing. People smiled when he mangled the language:

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.

We ought to make the pie higher.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.

Well, I think if you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, that’s trustworthiness.

People smiled. It was cute, or manly in a cowboy sort of way. Heck, everyone knew what he meant, right?

Former English teachers didn’t smile. They know sloppy thinking when they see it – or what’s worse, someone who just isn’t thinking – or the thing that’s even worse. They can spot someone who doesn’t even know that he’s not thinking. Read enough crappy student essays and you get the hang of it. This sort of thing is easy to spot – and that person shouldn’t be in charge of the free world. He shouldn’t be the decider, as George Bush liked to call himself. Others, better with words, can tell him what he’s thinking and he’ll believe it – it’s just easier for him. Which others? Dick Cheney comes to mind. Sure, Americans distrust those who are prissy and precise in their choice of words, and who offer long and logical and detailed arguments for their positions – they’re inauthentic, not “of the people” in a tribal sort of way, and they’re probably up to something – but they are thinking. A little more prissy and precise thinking might have kept us from taking over Iraq for eight years to make it a showplace of Jeffersonian democracy. A little more prissy and precise thinking might have had us look into what the financial industry had been up to for a decade, so that the economy really would not have had to collapse at the end of Bush’s last year in office. Oh well.

Former English teachers saw these things coming a mile away – maybe not these two things, but something bad. They know this kid. They had the conversation before. Oh, you know what I’m thinking here! No, YOU don’t even know what you’re thinking here!

All of that is ancient history now. George Bush has disappeared – he’s painting pictures of puppies and kittens these days – and Barack Obama has spent six or more years working on finding a balance between precise language and aw-shucks loose talk, usually successfully. Agree with his policies or not, there’s always something there to work with, not word soup. The word soup has migrated elsewhere, to other issues, like gun control. At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall and his crew have been on the side of those who don’t think every American should be well-armed at all times, and curiously, they’ve now run into a language problem:

Over the last eighteen months, we’ve made an on-going effort to highlight various cases of accidental shootings – sometimes leading to grave injuries, other times to minor ones, but usually illustrating the straightforward fact that guns are dangerous and people often do stupid things with them. Like showing them off to friends while they’re loaded, or showing them off when the gun is loaded and the gun-shower is also loaded, or leaving them unsecured where three-year-olds can find them and blow their heads off. But frequently, and increasingly of late, we get emails from readers criticizing our decision to call these shootings ‘accidents’ because that is not, in their view, what they are.

But, of course, that is exactly what they are. Of course, shooters may have fooled authorities into believing an intentional homicide was unintentional. But that’s a different issue.

This issue here is one word – accidental – which isn’t some odd word from a minor Shakespeare play. Everyone knows what that word means, except they keep getting emails like this, about the article about a pregnant Florida woman shot dead by a friend who was showing her some of his new guns:

Please, I am tired of this misrepresentation. She was not accidentally shot in the head. She was shot in the head by a grossly negligent gun owner. These are not accidents.

Is that so? Josh Marshall isn’t so sure:

I am always a little mystified by these emails because at one level they seem to show a simple lack of understanding of what the word ‘accident’ means. The primary meaning of ‘accident’ is an unfortunate and usually unexpected event that happens without anyone intending it. Most of us know this. So I assume there’s no need to belabor the point. Calling something an ‘accident’ doesn’t mean it is blameless or doesn’t involve negligence. In fact, most accidental shootings almost by definition involve some level of negligence, whether or not authorities decide it rises to the level of criminal culpability. Indeed, calling something “grossly negligent” basically requires an ‘accident’ since a person cannot be negligent about something if the outcome is one they intended.

Something else must be going on here, and is:

What interests me about these emails is the pervasive need, which we are probably all liable to, to distort language as a signal or measure of moral outrage. In other cases, we do this to stifle discussion or even thought – such as when we recoil from calling terrorists “brave”. Terrorists are often very brave, even when they’re evil. You can be both. There’s no necessary contradiction but for the fact that we think they’re evil so we don’t want to credit them for what we usually see as a virtue.

No we don’t. Ask Bill Maher about that. He lost his show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, over that very thing:

In the aftermath of the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush said that the terrorists responsible were cowards. On the Politically Incorrect September 17 show, Maher’s guest Dinesh D’Souza disputed Bush’s label, saying the terrorists were warriors. Maher agreed, and replied: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While similar comments had been made in other media, Maher’s comments became a major controversy. Some advertisers withdrew their support and some ABC affiliates stopped airing the show temporarily. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer denounced Maher, warning that “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”

Maher apologized, and explained that he had been criticizing U.S. military policy, not American soldiers. He pointed out that whether the attacks were cowardly was irrelevant to whether they were morally right or wrong.

It was too late. The advertisers bailed. The show was canceled. Terrorists cannot be brave, when they’re evil. That word – brave – now could not mean what it had always meant before, and Marshall sighs:

Almost all the major errors or mistakes or great instances of public bamboozlement I recall over the last twenty-five-odd years involved major distortions of language or the aggressive policing of language to prevent certain ideas or possibilities from being discussed or considered. The lead up to the Iraq War comes to mind. But it’s only one example and possibly only extreme in terms of the consequences involved.

Still his reader persists:

I believe if we change the perception of the act so that it is not immediately assumed it is an accident and people believe they may be charged most people will think twice when they have a gun in their possession.

Now Marshall is appalled:

The logic behind distorting the language was different and perhaps more considered than I realized… indeed, the amount of conscious thought that went into it seems to make it worse. …

But language really is our only vehicle for thought and our ability to communicate with other humans. So its clarity, its ability to signify meaning with precision, to mean one thing and not the other, is critical to the most important things in our lives. Orwell’s big insight was that clarity of language is not only an aesthetic issue but a moral one as well, frequently a political one too – an insight particularly appealing to writers of course, but valid nonetheless.

Simply put, we shouldn’t do it [revise the meaning of specific words] – even when we imagine it may force an outcome we believe is a good one.

Marshall is referring the George Orwell’s seminal essay Politics and the English Language – “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” We should know better. We don’t. We’ll make certain words mean what we find them useful to mean, even if that makes certain people very angry:

Rula Jebreal, whose contract as an MSNBC contributor ended last month, on Sunday criticized the network for suddenly describing her as a Palestinian journalist.

“I felt terrible because I was hired by MSNBC and for two years I was labeled as analyst, journalist, foreign policy expert, contributor. I was never labeled a Palestinian journalist,” she said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Jebreal said that there’s no reason to label her by her ethnicity, especially when she’s been counted on in the past to weigh in on issues across the Middle East as a journalist and expert.

“Is this how we label people? I think whoever is doing this PR campaign for MSNBC needs to rethink these issues,” she said.

She then suggested that MSNBC labeled her that way to make her seem “emotional.”

“Did I become Palestinian because this way you can describe me as emotional and as biased, and this way can avoid debate as to who is really biased on this issues?” she asked.

Those who watch MSNBC regularly, because we’re children of the sixties and bleeding-heart liberals to the core, know she has a point. She was on-air often and was never a Palestinian before, and now she is one, even if she doesn’t speak for them. You know how those people are. MSNBC might not have intended that – they’re not completely pro-Israel like Fox News – but their intentions don’t matter much in this case. She is a Palestinian by chance. She used to speak for herself, as an analyst and foreign policy expert. Now they’ve decided she speaks as a Palestinian, and even if MSNBC claims to respect that, and laud that, she’s been stripped of her expertise. She doesn’t like that, but the words we use matter. Or more precisely, what we all have agreed the words now mean is what matters. She can run but she can’t hide. She’s now one of them.

The problem is that the word Palestinian has become toxic, which explains David Horovitz in the Times of Israel with John Kerry: The Betrayal:

When the Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff first reported the content of John Kerry’s ceasefire proposal on Friday afternoon, I wondered if something had gotten lost in translation. It seemed inconceivable that the American secretary of state would have drafted an initiative that, as a priority, did not require the dismantling of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and network of tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Yet the reported text did not address these issues at all, nor call for the demilitarization of Gaza.

It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza – rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.

That’s the opening, and this goes on and on, and is mostly about Hamas, but it is also about who is the aggrieved party here, and the distinction between Hamas and the Palestinians doesn’t allow for the possibility that the Palestinians in Gaza, after having been starved nearly to death in what seems to many to be the world’s largest prison camp, for two decades, might be fine with Hamas doing what they’re doing. For them, Israel is not a magical word for all that is good, and Palestinian is not a word for hopeless losers who should not even be there in Gaza, or in the West Bank, who foolishly align themselves with nasty terrorists because they don’t know any better. This is a war of words, or of those two words.

This leads Jeffrey Goldberg to conclude that Israel is losing a war it’s winning:

Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza). This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception.

That’s what matters, and Goldberg sees a few reasons for that, including this:

In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas’s leadership and Gaza’s civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)

And this:

Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this… but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery.

Those are two of his many examples of how Israel has blown it, but the real issue is how Israel has ruined the word Israel itself:

Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world that look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.

I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions.

There is, however, a way to deal with that, to redefine what we think of when we think of the word Israel, and the word Palestinian too:

Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence – in particular security independence – can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way.

Of course there’s no other way, but it may be too late for that. We’ve locked in what two certain words mean now, and if Marshall is right – that language really is our only vehicle for thought and what provides us our ability to communicate with other humans, and that its ability to signify meaning with precision, to mean one thing and not the other, is critical to the most important things in our lives – and he is right – then the situation is hopeless. All the high school English teachers in the world couldn’t fix this – not now. It is important to be able to explain what you mean, to put what you think that you’re thinking into words that others can understand, but when the words float free from what they once meant and now mean something else, depending on who wants to use them for other ends, then things break down. At least George Bush was only incoherent, unable or unwilling to think things through. This is far worse. Key words have been redefined and weaponized. And former English teachers weep.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Finding the Right Words

  1. Rick says:

    Various observations on today’s topic, much (but not all) of it concerning political correctitude:

    “Ask Bill Maher about that. He lost his show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, over that very thing”.

    And by the way (assuming his show really was cancelled because of his comment about whether or not terrorists were cowards), you’d think that fans of irony everywhere would enjoy the fact that Maher got into trouble for saying something that was real world correct, but “politically” incorrect, the irony being that his show was literally supposed to be comprised of statements and ideas that might offend some folks’ political sensitivities.

    But of course, whether this was truly ironic at all might depend on what Maher’s politics are — which seem to be all over the place, a mix of everything from libertarian (favors legalizing gambling, prostitution, and marijuana), liberal (an Obama supporter; an environmentalist who supports the Kyoto treaty; opposed the Iraq War; board member of PETA), and conservative (owns guns for protection; is openly anti-Islam; and since 9/11, has favored racial profiling in airports) — since contemporary use of the term “politically incorrect” implies that it be used disparagingly to offend only liberals, not conservatives.

    And did you assume, as I did, that the term “politically correct” was coined by some right-winger as an insult to those on the left? It turns out its origins are found in early- and mid-20th century discussions between Socialists and Communists, used by the former to mock the latter for the tendency of party members to toe the “party line” instead of following their consciences. But there’s an interesting theory as to how right-wingers eventually took possession of the term:

    “Herbert Kohl pointed out that a number of neoconservatives who promoted the use of the term ‘politically correct’ in the early 1990s were actually former Communist Party members, and as a result, familiar with the original use of the phrase. He argued that in doing so, they intended ‘to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox and Communist-influenced, when they oppose the right of people to be racist, sexist, and homophobic.’ “

    I also find it interesting that at least two cable news networks have, seemingly to be more PC, tried to change the meanings of words as a way, presumably, to alter the way people think about things. One example of this was Fox News Channel’s decision in 2002 to promote the term “Homicide Bomber” in place of “Suicide Bomber”, apparently because the latter term seemed too sympathetic to some scummy bad guy. (Every time I heard Fox use the term “Homicide bomber”, I found myself shouting, “I’m tired of all these bastard homicide bombers, getting away with murder! Why can’t we ever seem to catch those SOBs?”)

    And at one point years ago, Ted Turner banned the word “foreign” from CNN newscasts on the theory that calling anything “foreign” was somehow an insult. (It’s not, of course.) He preferred the word “international”, as if it means the roughly same thing, but without the pejorative overtones. (It doesn’t, of course.) He even changed the name of the CNN “Foreign” desk to the “International” desk, and said he would fine any employee calling it the wrong thing. (It was always my contention that the new “International” desk should then also have taken over the duties of CNN’s “National” desk, since unlike “Foreign”, “International” refers to all countries, including this one. But since I was no longer working there at the time, I never got fined for suggesting this in the privacy of my own home.)

    And while speaking of the meaning of words, we should not forget Alice in Wonderland:

    “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

    But fear of violating PC-ness is not completely just a thing of the past. There’s a controversy just now winding down concerning ESPN anchor-commentator Stephen A. Smith expressing his thoughts on footballer Ray Rice’s having, last February, apparently beaten up his then-fiance (now wife) in an elevator, in which Smith offered the seemingly obvious suggestion that, even as we all know men should never beat up their women, those women could also try to help out by not provoking their men.

    What Smith said, however clumsily, has some merit. After all, does anyone actually believe women should provoke their men into a fist fight? Likewise, should anybody — man or woman — not take care to be civil in their dealings with others, lest they cause someone else to lash out in anger?

    But all that, of course, is beside the point. When most everyone listens to Smith suggest what he suggested, no matter how hard he tries to qualify his statement, what they will hear him say is that there may be times when the man who hits his woman is not at fault — which is not at all what he was saying. But in fact, it doesn’t matter what he was saying, since everybody long ago stopped listening and started in to posturing. As so often happens when PC is involved, we get lots more heat than light.

    And finally, concerning that business of Bush’s hilarious mangling of the language:

    “Former English teachers didn’t smile.”

    Which is why I’m glad I never was an English teacher! I would be robbing myself of the joy of sorting out what the hell it was that George W. Bush was always trying to say, which I think is MUCH more fun than trying to parse Shakespeare’s 500-year-old dead language. In fact, it might even be said that, in his way, Bush was even more creative with his language than the bard was.

    And, unlike with Shakespeare, because you didn’t need no stinking English teacher to help you get the joke, Bush in his day was infinitely more entertaining!


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