Sunday, July 31, 2011

Humpty Dumpty, George Orwell, and the "Cult of Balance": Perverting Language for Political Ends

Language is often used in such a way as to emphasize the point of view of the user. Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s classic “Through the Looking-Glass”, tells Alice “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” and it is pretty clear that he has many devotees in the political world. This certainly include those who tell us that tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs, that dismantling government will improve our lives, and so on. But it also includes, unfortunately, the news media, who are supposed to inform us of what is happening but often, in their choice of words (do they just go to an on-line thesaurus?) change the meaning.

A relatively benign example is in the article in the New York Times’ on July 30, 2011 by Judy Battista, Off-Season Reduced, N.F.L. Runs Through Millions (begun on page 1, not even the Sports section), which contains the following phrase near the beginning: “From the moment team owners and players signed off Monday on an agreement to end the league’s longest work stoppage…” Excuse me, it was a lockout. “Work stoppage” definitely implies that work was stopped by a decision of the workers, in this case football players, or a strike. To use this term when in fact the owners of the teams were the ones who refused to let the players work is not only incorrect, it shifts blame, and thus changes the facts of the story.

In Ms. Battista’s case, perhaps there was not an intent to mislead, but simply a poor understanding of the difference of who is at fault. However, that difference is important. If I come up and punch you in the face and knock you down, it is an “attack”, not a “fight”; using the latter word implies equal involvement, if not culpability. More frighteningly, however, there is the possibility that she and other reporters, unintentionally, intentionally, or through the intercession of their editors, misunderstand the need to be fair to mean a need to evenly attribute responsibility.

This tendency, and its malignant effects, is very well described by Paul Krugman in The Centrist Cop-Out (NY Times, 7/29/11).  In discussing the “debate” in Congress on raising the debt ceiling, he notes that “News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent,” which they are not; both the Democrats in Congress and particularly President Obama have made concession after concession, so much so that the President’s plan, which includes not only concessions on tax cuts for billionaires but major cuts to Social Security and Medicare, is far to the right of anything proposed by a Republican president. Yet “pundits fantasize about some kind of ‘centrist’ uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.”

Krugman continues: “Some of us have long complained about the cult of ‘balance,’ the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.’“ Or, for another example, whether evolution and creationism are equally valid “theories”. His question about this approach is whether it would “….still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?”, and concludes that “The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.”

There is power in words. Years after Humpty Dumpty, Adolf Hitler described the value of the “big lie” in his book ­­­­Mein Kampf (cited in my Medicine and Social Justice blog piece Should it be a crime to be poor, or, instead, to criminalize poverty?,  August 16, 2009). George Orwell, looking at both Nazism and Stalinism, codified purposeful misstatement in ­1984 with the language of “Newspeak” (discarding those pesky accurate meanings in “Oldspeak”).  The Nazis placed the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes freedom”) over the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. Orwell, in his earlier novel Animal Farm, describes the gates to farm proclaiming

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

Is this where we are headed? With the virulently conservative Fox News (owned by the somewhat embattled but not yet chastened Rupert Murdoch) proclaim itself as “Fair and Balanced” being a model, and the misuse of the “cult of balance”, we well may be.

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