Monday, November 13, 2006

Use and Abuse of Words - Clarification

Lookin at the responses of David and Neil to my last post, I suspect that I may myself have been guilty of lack of clarity in my own words.

My core interest is in the way in which individual words and phrases are used as a weapon for both good and bad in policy and public debate. I said in part:

"The problem with words is that they have both a precise meaning and a bundle of connotations attached to that meaning. Take the word reform as an example. This means to change. But the word also carries the connotation to improve. Hence our politicians use and abuse the word to describe and attempt to sell any change they consider to be important.

Another example is friendly fire. There is nothing friendly about an artillery shell from your own side. Or collateral damage in place of civillian casualties."

To extend my argument, let me take a personal example of the deliberate use of words, one that I would classify as a good thing.

At the end of the Second World War Australia had a major aircraft industry measured by the number of planes produced. In the late forties and fifties we were (and few Australians realise this) a world space power because of our involvement in the Commonwealth and Empire Space Program. In Sydney, Hawker de Havilland employed 4,500 people in its space division. Australia had the opportunity to become a foundation member of the European Space Agency even in the face of French opposition.

Now look at what happened. The Menzies-McEwen Government - and this is the core of my criticism of that Government - had no vision of Australia as a global economic power. On one side we were an exporter of primary products, on the other we were building an industrial structure behind high tariff walls dedicated to the supply of the local market. There was no vision of Australia as an international player in either manufactures or services.

This played through in regard to aircraft and space.

On the aircraft side, the industry's role was seen solely in terms of its support for Australia's own defence needs. This was reflected in its name - it was generally called the defence aircraft industry. As aircraft became more expensive we bought fewer, so construction demand dropped. These fewer aircraft required less maintenance, so maintenance demand dropped even more. By 1983 when I became responsible for industry policy in the area, the sole policy debate was to find the best way to contract and restructure the industry to meet a diminished domestic defence need.

On the space side, our role was seen simply as support for the British space program. There was no vision of Australia as a space nation. As the British program wound back our role wound back. In so doing we lost, among other things, the opportunity to develop Woomera as a major international launch site. By 1983 employment in the Australian space "industry" had shrunk to a few hundred at best.

In 1983 as a first step in trying to turn all this round, we renamed the defence aircaft industry the aerospace industry. This simple semantic variation changed the focus of the policy debate from contraction to meet a diminished local defence need to possible expansion to meet the needs of the global aerospace market including space. Later still after my departure, the policy people started talking about the industry as the aero-components industry, a simple semantic change that actually marked the end, the failure, of the broader vision.

While I would argue that the aerospace name change was a good thing, it was a conscious use of semantics to achieve an end. Today, this has become a highly sophisticated art form. You can see this in the conversations in West Wing, for example, one of my all time favourite TV programs.

The problem is that while we are all aware of it in a general sense, we can still get caught up in it without realising it. It has in fact become quite pernicious when combined with the use of polls and focus groups to determine just what we think and, more importantly, feel. A story on Neil's blog pointed to an especially nasty NSW example of the focus group process at work, in this case involving a NSW Labour Party focus group and Opposition Leader Peter Debnam.

In another of those examples of Australia as a small world, there is a link between Peter and the aerospace story because he was involved wth the basic trainer aircraft project at the time I was talking about.

Because the process has become so pervasive and pernicious, I think that we need to shine a light on it so I was interested in examples. There is a problem here in that our responses to some of these things are influenced by our own perceptions for or against the thing being referred to. So if we support the policy, we may see nothing wrong in the words. There is a further problem in that those reporting become trapped into using the words supplied by, say, a Government.

A few examples follow:
  • "three strikes and you're out". Imported into Australia from the US. Relies for its power on the linking to baseball and its rules.
  • "national interest". Term commonly used by Governments to justify specific actions. Who can oppose something that is in the national interest? But is it? How do we know?
  • "national standard". Relies for its power on the way the concept of quality attaches itself to standard. "We need a national standard" is presented as a self-evident justification in its own right. But is it? What do we mean by standard in this case? How is it better or worse?
  • "War on Terror". Appeal to patriotism. But is it a war?
  • "illegal immigrant". Who can argue against the need to keep out illegal immigrants. But what is the the dividing line between a refugee (positive connotation) and the negative illegal immigrant?
  • "Detainee". Don't we mean prisoner?
  • "Workchoices" as in the industrial relations legislation. Who can argue with the concept of choice?
  • "Insurgent, freedom fighter, guerilla, rebel, terrorist". Each of these words has a different connotation. Use depends in part upon whether or not you support the cause. Those involved on both sides select very deliberately.
  • "Body count". Number killed.
  • "The Environment". This phrase has become capitalised. As in x is against the enironment. Or the environmental movement. But what is the environment?
  • "The market or markets". Used as though the market was a person.

And so on.


Anonymous said...

Jim, J.K.Galbraith many years ago pointed out how the US economy is sustained and Dependant on military spending.
As for euphemisms, I agree with you.

Travel Italy said...

Jim, some additional information that may be useful,

Refugees require that some type of disaster has occured, whether it be war, drought, tsunami etc. At that point refugees are actually recognized and in some form cared for (concentration camps is the usual solution) and not just shed into an existing equilibrium. Illegal immigrant is actually a correct term since there is no recognition of disaster in the countries the individuals come from. The US currently brings in a large percentage of "refugees".

Market or Markets have are actually talking about the institution of the NYSE Milan Borsa etc. just as our government sees corporations as citizens allowing them the right to petition government. Many people believe that markets are the abstract economist version of market meaning the addressable client base.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Lexcen. Point noted.

David, I think that your comment draws out an interesting distinction between the US with its illegal migrant problem and Australia.

Here there has been a major debate about certain groups entering Australia by boat to claim refugee status. The Government has taken to attaching the term "illegal immigrant" to them all to help justify its border control policies. Regardless of the arguments for or against the Governments stance, it is is an example of the deliberate use of labels.

I agree that the term market is correctly applied to, say, a stock exchange or, for that matter, a cattle market. In some cases they certainly have an individual legal entity.

The thing that amuses me is the way that commentators personalise the term. For example, the markets fear of inflation led to a fall today. Or markets were jittery today. Markets cannot fear, nor can they (I think) be jittery. On the other hand, market participants cn fear, can be jittery.

Normally this way of personalising and shorthanding does not matter, but it can also lead to straight sloppy thinking.

Travel Italy said...

Jim - It is not just limited to journalists, governments or politicians. Every part of our society uses sensationalist tactics to gain momentum. This is a process that has been progressing over the last 30 years here in the US. I call it False Advertising, they call it Freedom of Speech. In the end it is the expansion of the superficial, the must have the shiny sparkling pieces of plastic on jacket. It is Walmart, Target, Designer Wines made with liquid wood, fast food selling 'authentic Italian', it is Artificial Trans Fat, Genetically Modified Foods, it is who we are...

I think some people are beginning to understand that perhaps our priorities must change if we are to survive but this is in direct conflict with corporate interests.

Remember, the individual can reason and make intelligent choices, but the mass is downright ignorant! Connotations play to the masses.

Jim Belshaw said...

On A Floating Life, the link is at the end of comments, Neil has put up a post on the use and abuse of words with some very interesting links through to specific cases. In this case, from the right of politics. They show conscious manipulation of language in practice.

While the examples here are from the right, the approach applies across the spectrum.

David in his latest comment points to a related issue: "It is not just limited to journalists, governments or politicians. Every part of our society uses sensationalist tactics to gain momentum." David is right.

Mind you, David, I would suggest that your use of the word "masses" may be an example of what I am talking about! There are some interesting issues here linked back to a rival concept, the wisdom of the crowd. This suggests that people as a group - a crowd - may be more likely to reach an informed view on an issue than even intelligent experts.

I think that most people can tune out the more sensational. That is part of the drive sometimes towards the more sensational. The use of language is more subtle and can slip through unnoticed.

Mind you, the example cited by Neil of Newt Gingrich is interesting in that it is far enough back in the past to see both the deliberate use of language and the way in which this failed because because of the gap that opened between language and performance.

Travel Italy said...

Jim, masses is most likely an example, your example showed a group of thinking individuals actually discussing a solution (in my case the individual), my use is the normal joe of any extraction, caught up in his daily routine and personal problems and objectives. My masses only dedicates limited bandwidth to hear and store data, political talking points are the exemplification of this.

Jim Belshaw said...

David, sorry for the delay in responding to your latest comment.

I think that your point about the impact of time and other pressures on the ordinary person is very good one. They think about what is most directly relevant to them in a personal sense at the time.

In Australia John Howard, I think that it was him, coined the phrase BBQ stopper to describe an issue that was so important or of so much interest that it was discussed around the BBQ.

Again you trigger some interesting thoughts in terms of the way people process information and form views.

In Australia the pattern appears to be that people largely tune out much current policy or political discussion simply because it is not immediately relevant to them. Then as an election approaches (voting is compulsory in Australia)they make their mind up.

In the past Australian voting patterns were relatively fixed,with only a small group of swing voters who effectively decided the election outcome. This swing group is much larger now. In addition, there are a lot more single issue political organisations. So it makes for a more complex political scene.

It's interesting comparing Australia and the US. Party discipline in Australia is much more rigid in part because Government is determined by who has and maintains control in the various lower houses. On the other hand, we have more party diversity (numbers, spread along the political spectrum) than the US.