Friday, September 01, 2006

Putting the 'Win' in Spin

(Eds. Note: This was sent to me by my friend, Joan Rosen in Tallahassee, Florida. It's a topic close to my heart having studied linguistics at University and knowing how language changes culture, and NOT the other way around. Pay particular attention to the 'dumbing down of America' charges. It's something that I will touch on in future posts. - Dina)

This essay is a great bit of insight, and it explains an awful lot about the decline of almost every aspect of US society. I would go a little deeper, though, and suggest that the problem is not just a lack of language skills: more fundamentally, it's a massive -- and growing -- deficit in the area of cognitive skills generally. As we dumb down our public schools, our civic dialog, our media, and our parenting, we end up increasingly ineffective at both communicating and understanding information that is necessary for arriving at a desired outcome. We see the pervasive effects of this decline in everything we do, from ordering a pizza to mitigating international conflict.

Nuance isn't just some esoteric part of the creative writer's craft. Meaning matters. For example, when the TV "news" covers a motor vehicle crash (which they euphemistically call an "accident," as if it somehow "just happened" absent human intervention), they typically say that the driver "lost control" of the car. But hey, I guess we all know how it is: one moment you're driving along, everything proceeding normally, when out of the blue, *poof* -- "Hey, where did my driving skills go?!? Oh nooooo..." In reality, the driver *relinquished* control by consciously deciding to drive too fast for conditions or to divert their attention to another activity (e.g., applying makeup or making a phone call); they certainly didn't just "lose" control as the media would have us believe. This is a calculated strategy to appeal to the me-centric, no-responsibility, hyper-sensitive, feel-good baby-boomer sensibility, which categorically precludes hurting anyone's tender wittle feewings by making them appear responsible for their actions. Think about it...if we are manipulated to feel sympathy toward the driver's situation -- poor Driver! -- we feel all warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves, which makes us want to watch more of the news broadcast and warms us to the products displayed in the ads. If, on the other hand, the reporter says "this idiot switched lanes recklessly, overcompensated, and ended up spinning off the road into the canal," we might transfer some of that mean ol' critical negativity onto their precious advertisers, and that could end up hurting some shareholder's bottom line -- and we can't have that, now, can we?

That was a fairly innocuous example. But try this on: you've probably never noticed that the administration shills always say that "the terrorists" are out to git us -- not just "terrorists" or "a terrorist." This is a relatively amateurish (yet, when used on the mostly-dim American public, highly effective) attempt to convey an image of an organized, unitary, arbitrarily eee-vill adversarial force (of which we must, of course, be very afraid) rather than the dynamic, complex situation that actually exists. After all, demonizing Armies of Rabid Evildoers Bent on Chaos as if the real world were a comic book storyline helps whip up the fear better than objectivity ever could. And fear is what keeps getting SAIC, Northrop Grumman, Booz-Allen, and all the other "homeland security industrial complex" beltway bandits those fat corporate welfare contracts. The spinmeisters wouldn't dare refer to the actual problem by its real name, religious extremists, because that would alienate "the base" (you know, our own Taliban) and shed light on the growing deficiencies of the American intellect -- and we can't have that, now, can we?

So, why did so many people vote for Bush in 04? I'm afraid that a big part of the answer is that (in addition to relinquishing all interest in actually understanding current affairs -- dereliction of our citizenly duties, if you will), Americans have become utterly helpless in terms of their ability to critically parse even the most simplistic language, rendering us vulnerable to spin and propaganda on the grandest of scales.

Thank you Jesus for Fox News... Now. To the essay.

Kathleen Reardon

Why We Can't "Win" Any War
If you've read my previous blogs, you know that I explore beneath the surface of what people say and do in politics. Purposeful deceit does emerge, but more common are unexamined patterns of thinking. Socrates disparaged the unexamined life and spent much of his helping people discover their own limiting habits of thought.I'm putting on my blog philosopher hat for a few moments to endeavor to do the same.

If we're not alert to how language is used, how it shapes our thinking and thus our decisions, we make ourselves predictable, manageable and often wrong. We limit our options and close down any hope of creativity. Words are not harmless and using them as if they are is, at best, naive. They are shaped by thinking and shape thinking.

Words that work well in one context can also be borrowed for use in another where they actually do not belong (what modern philosopher Stephen Toulmin refers to in his book Return to Reason as language being "desituated" or "disembedded"). And that is what happens when the term "win' is applied without adequate forethought or for political advantage to the war in Iraq.

Consider this -- In the past, winning a war meant annihilating or in some fashion destroying by force an enemy's leadership and major forces. The defeated enemy's beleaguered followers were largely content to go home even if they harbored anger and disdain for the victors. That facilitated what could reasonably be called a "win." In short, a "win" was possible then. Many thousands of lives may have been lost, but a "win" of sorts could nevertheless be called, especially as the other side usually surrendered.

The enemies America has now, many in Iraq, most elsewhere, are bred from near infancy to hate. They are as committed to their cause as those who lead them. Terminate their leaders and others emerge to take their places. Living to go home is not high among their priorities - beleaguered or not. Dying a martyr is. We've seen how those who hate America and Israel (soon to more evidently hate Europe, Australia and other countries, many lying low in the false hope of being spared) are emboldened by both failures and successes of their enemies. Both can be used to foster recruitment to the cause.

Today's terrorist enemies also don't seek to win a war; they seek to change the world. Losses along the way are expected when the goal is so substantial. They come as no surprise and are planned for in advance. This is an enemy that might be contained, outmaneuvered, driven back, controlled, and managed, but not one against which it's even sensible to seek, especially in the short term, a definitive, final "win."

Yet, thousands of lives, countless dollars, and valuable resources have been diverted from increasing and improving national security and the development of much needed intelligence operations in order to achieve such a "win" in Iraq. Ingenious people who are capable of coming up with counterintuitive strategies of the "Greeks-bearing-gifts" type should be gathering in Washington, D.C. right now as guests of the White House, no matter their political leanings, working day and night to outsmart this enemy. But, instead, the Bush Administration and many members of Congress cling to a win scenario they can't even define, let alone achieve. Predictability is the kiss of death in negotiation, politics and war, and yet we're extremely predictable in our need for a "win." Once predictable, we're manageable. And that can't be good. A much more clever means of succeeding will be needed. But it won't be found until simple, limiting constructions (win or lose) no longer shape the thinking of those who could make a difference.

While most of us think that ideas shape language, we are inadequately trained to notice how language shapes ideas and therefore decisions. And as we've seen, it can be used to excuse inexcusable actions.

If we don't, as a country, pay closer attention to how this works to our disadvantage and locate the fallacies hidden in our unquestioned assumptions, there is good reason to believe that the road we take will have one very unacceptable result: a place in the history books for a president and vice president who supposedly "won" a war but lost everything else that mattered.

1 comment:

Martha Marshall said...

I hope thanking Jesus for Fox News was in jest.