By Steven Poole
288pp | Little, Brown | 2006 | ISBN 0316731005 | £9. 99 / US$23.00
Steven Poole, the blurb of this book tells us, writes for the Guardian and other publications. He seems an investigative journalist of the best kind; for he is not investigating the usual instances of corrupt practice, such as the Watergate or thalidomide scandals, but the nature of political language itself. Politics, we all know, is often an ignoble business. When you want to enact unpopular policies the temptation to use dishonest means of verbal persuasion is enormous. There is a conscious or unconscious propulsion towards duplicitous euphemism; spades are never called spades in this twilight, circumlocutory world, they are always implements for turning the soil.
“Unspeak”, as its name suggests, is the very sophisticated progeny of “Newspeak”, George Orwell’s brilliant coinage for the official lies peddled in his novel 1984. Like Newspeak, but less crudely, Unspeak exploits and distorts language for political motives. According to its inventor, it “says one thing while really meaning that thing in a more intensely loaded and revealing way”. As a journalist Poole has developed a habit of “close reading”, ie, exhaustively decoding the hidden meaning behind the public statement. His advice to the reader: “You just have to pay attention.” His book is an invitation not to take politicians’ words at their face value on any subject, at any time. Did we not know this already? Perhaps; but mental laziness is always ready to overpower vigilance and Unspeak is a valuable tool to prevent this.
Poole’s method is to take eight seemingly innocent words often used in the public arena, and subject them to a relentless, microscopic analysis to demonstrate just how they and all their ramifications can be transmogrified by unscrupulous mishandling. They are “community”, “nature”, “tragedy”, “operations”, “terror”, “abuse”, “freedom” and “extremism”. Readers will probably have their critical antennae on alert from the start of this list. But having read Poole’s book, I can see how easy it is to allow one’s critical faculties to be deadened over time by saturation exposure to a weasel word or phrase.
For example, “anti-social behaviour orders” or ASBOs, recently approved by the English Parliament, might sound, at first glance, a good thing; but when analysed, the phrase “anti-social” rapidly loses itself in a miasma of individual interpretation. As Poole points out, adultery is very anti-social, therefore “why not impose ASBOs on every newly-wed couple, forbidding them from committing adultery, so that if one of them does you can send them to prison?”
Again, when politicians speak of the “gay community” or the “Muslim community”, they brashly ignore the fact that so-called members of these two “communities” vary greatly, might disagree with those chosen to speak on their behalf, probably belong to several other “communities” and therefore would not wish to be typecast under one heading. The author’s assessments are usually unerring: “Just call any proposed change a “reform” and people will assume it will be an improvement,” he remarks.
Poole is particularly good on the Unspeak employed in science. The phrase “climate change” is often now used instead of “global warming” because it is less frightening (though less correct); the word “Greenpeace” elicits his rhetorical question: “Who does not like green stuff, or peace?” His particular scorn is employed against words used to disguise violence and injustice. To describe a botched police operation — such as the shooting of the innocent “terror suspect” Jean Charles de Menezes in the London Underground — as a “tragedy”, effectively prevents blame being laid at anyone’s door. “Ethnic cleansing” encourages one to think “the choice is between hygiene and filth”; the alternative, “genocide”, sounds too harsh and might imply a duty to intervene.
Much of the author’s invective is used against the Bush administration and its verbal glosses on the Iraq war; “surgical strike” suggests a neat, incisive action for the patient’s own good; “operation” again implies a beneficial and necessary intervention rather than what is often actually happening: the killing of civilians who have been given the deliberately vague collective title, “terrorist suspects”. What in the Vietnam War were called “body bags”, in the Gulf War “human remains pouches”, have now in the Iraq War become simply “transfer tubes”. What begins as the degradation of language ends by the degradation of the human being.
Journalists, Poole states, have a responsibility “to recognise prejudicial language for what it is” and his book is, on the whole, a fine demonstration of responsible journalism. However, even he is not immune from prejudices of his own. When discussing the manipulation of words by politicians and the media he is on sure ground; when he strays outside this area he displays his fallibility. He assumes, though he uses the phrase lightly, that there was a time “when we were all swinging from the trees”. This Darwinian view blinds him to an alternative perspective: that we also come from the hand of God so that language has a sacred as well as social significance.
In a curious attack on the distinguished historian John Lukacs, Poole castigates Lukacs’ use of the phrase “human nature” in his book Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (2005) because he thinks it a meaningless generalisation about people; but it is entirely meaningful to those whose core moral axioms flow from the creation of man and his subsequent fall. Several chapters later Poole writes, “In his ecstatically gloomy book on democracy, historian John Lukacs moaned…” After this tendentious preface he then quotes disapprovingly Lukacs’ list of the consequences of unchecked liberalism: “…laws approving abortions, mercy killing, cloning, sexual ‘freedoms’, permissiveness, pornography…” The quote marks around the word ‘freedoms’ particularly excites Poole’s wrath. How dare Lukacs imply a moral law that might curtail our individual freedom?
Unspeak is everywhere, for we can all be glib, prevaricate, or embellish the truth when it suits us. But we can only finally hold to “the truth” when words themselves cease to be “my truth” or “your truth” or even “Poole’s truth” but obey an objective moral standard: God’s truth. A final quote will show this: “Many types of Unspeak are themselves false dichotomies: “pro-life” sets up a false choice between being for life and against it” pronounces Poole. Pro-lifers would hardly agree with him. For all his zeal in unmasking the villains of Unspeak, Poole cannot always distinguish the wood from the trees. Is this because he is still, metaphorically, swinging from them?
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.