Newspeak for a New Millennium: Language Packaged to Persuade

There’s a growing genre of nonfiction that could be called “lefty paranoia about the evil brilliance of the right,” in which the Republican plan for world domination is exposed and examined from different angles, to gasps of outrage and horror. Steven Poole’s Unspeak is a new entrant in this category—a book with a clever concept and freshly coined name to go along with it, which ultimately reads like a catalog of what’s wrong with American politics in general and George W. Bush in particular.

Mr. Poole, who writes for The Guardian, begins by quoting Confucius and then introduces his pet term, “Unspeak”: “What do the phrases ‘pro-choice’, ‘tax relief’, and ‘Friends of the Earth’ have in common?” he asks. “Each of these terms … is a name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners, and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics, where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.”

In other words, politicians and campaigners are partial to propaganda.

Despite the obviousness of the point, and the fact that it’s buttressed by other obvious points (President Bush and his administration manipulate language; politicians are careful about what they say; the press often lazily reprints the politicians’ talking points), Unspeak provides an opportunity to revisit the catch phrases that have been bandied about in the news and to think about what they actually mean. Unfortunately, Mr. Poole lays out his argument early on, and the 200 pages that follow read like a dictionary of the Republicans’ tricky branding of everything from the “Clear Skies Act” to “Operation Iraqi Freedom”—with the occasional Bill Clinton or Tony Blair reference tossed in. The euphemisms almost always gloss over some awful form of violence.

In some cases, the tinkering with language can have dire consequences. Take, for instance, “ethnic cleansing”—a term that was used to describe the mass murder, rape and other horrors taking place in early-1990’s Yugoslavia. It “reifies a notion of easily distinguishable ‘ethnicity’; then it implies that some ethnicities are dirtier or more corrupted than others, that they constitute infectious filth or vermin.” The use of the word “cleansing” further lends the whole enterprise a spiritual air. In fact, to employ the term at all “is to acquiesce in each hateful stage of this argument … to reinforce the perpetrators’ scheme of self-justification,” according to Mr. Poole—something that few reporting on the events at the time seemed to recognize.

Similarly, an intentional fudging of the meaning of “genocide” is rampant, with some seeking to dilute the impact of the word by repeating it constantly and others avoiding it because it might imply a duty to intervene in places like Rwanda and Sudan. “This tension between what the word ‘genocide’ itself seemed to imply and its actual legal definition in the Genocide Convention, made genocide-denial eminently possible,” Mr. Poole writes. Of course, he depressingly points out that even after Colin Powell and Mr. Bush characterized what was happening in Darfur, Sudan, as “genocide,” nothing happened, leading Mr. Poole to conclude that the West had “killed” the word altogether.

It will come as no surprise that the “War on Terror” also yields an endless stream of absurd phraseology for Mr. Poole to examine. (Four chapters are devoted to “Terror,” “Abuse,” “Freedom” and “Extremism.”) He points out that “terrorism”—which he defines (“for the sake of argument”) as “the threat or use of violence against a civilian population in order to coerce the leaders of that population into a particular political decision”—can be stretched to refer to just about anybody, depending on what one’s definition of a “civilian” is. We also learn that the use of “insurgents” to describe armed Iraqis fighting the U.S. military in Iraq arose partly because the news media thought that calling them “terrorists” was too propagandistic, and that references to “suicide bombings” were changed to “homicide bombings” at the Fox News Channel because the former was deemed too friendly to the bombers themselves. Then there’s the debate over calling people “terrorist suspects,” the use of the word “abuse” to stand in for “torture,” or the use of the phrase “enemy combatants” to describe the people being tortured and “evil folks” to describe anyone Mr. Bush doesn’t like.

There’s more: “Natural resources,” “sustainable development,” “community,” “climate change,” “coalition of the willing,” “collateral damage,” “intelligent design”—practically every word that tumbles out of Mr. Bush’s mouth is deceptive, euphemistic “Unspeak.”

The author acknowledges early on that his book is light on analysis. “I am not a linguist; nor am I a political reporter,” he says. “I claim no authority or expertise beyond a habit of close reading, practised in literary journalism. If the book has some interest, however, it may be simply that it demonstrates that you don’t have to be a specialist to resist the tide of Unspeak: you just have to pay attention.”

But after following Mr. Poole’s meticulous documentation of the problem, one is left with the feeling that we’re living in the midst of an Orwellian nightmare with no relief in sight. In this context, Mr. Poole’s exhortations to “just pay attention” are better than nothing, but finally unsatisfying. “[W]e should at the very least expect, and demand, that our newspapers, radio, and television refuse to replicate and spread the Unspeak virus,” he says. “The citizen’s plan of action is simple. When the media do this, talk back: write and tell them. Possibly the growth of Unspeak cannot be reversed. But that doesn’t mean we have to go on swallowing it.” This strategy might cut it in London, but in New York it seems tantamount to suggesting that everyone just give up.

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a reporter at The Observer.