Saturday, October 7, 2017

Straight-Talking in Al Franken's "Age of Neo-Sticklerism"

I am hoping for the pendulum to swing back,
and that we have an age of neo-sticklerism
where everyone is a stickler for the truth.

         The Honorable but still funny Al Franken, junior U.S. Senator from Minnesota, hopes for "an age of neo-sticklerism where everyone is a stickler for the truth" — but he doesn't "see that happening." I don't either, but in the Time of Trump and Tribulations, we should attempt to denormalize, so to speak, lying, and to limit bullshitting to contexts where bullshit is funny and fun, and everyone know the rules.
         I will contribute toward an age of neo-sticklerism with some curmudgeoning on my field of language.
         As a student of language and a human person, I know that it's unlikely we'll ever get most people most of the time to listen seriously to what others are saying, but I think we can get people more frequently listening to what they themselves say.
         So listen to yourself and think about what you say, and try to avoid talking what we intellectuals often call "weird shit." Or "weird shit," if you think about it, which few people do, so it's too familiar to seem weird.
         Start with figurative language.

Hyperbole: Hyperbole — overstatement, "hype" — is a figure of speech and can be fun, as in the American tradition of the tall tale. When a bit of hype become a cliché though, it's a problem because with clichés we don't think (which is the primary reason George Orwell disliked clichés so much).
         E.g., when people say they just love something. Okay, Would you run into a burning building to save it? If not, ratchet that back to "like." (Same with people, although that gets really complicated. Take seriously the moldie oldie advice "Be sure it's true"; it is usually a minor sin, but, indeed, in intimate human relationships, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," although lying may be less bad than telling some truths.)
         Or if you're tempted to demand 110% dedication from your employees or students or players, remember that there is usually only 100% of anything and you damn well don't deserve anywhere near all of anyone else's time and effort.

Absolutes (read again about "hyperbole"):
         President Trump is bigly on this one, and it's an old habit going back to at least to building temples to the god Jupiter, "Optimus Maximus": "Best and Greatest" or what we might call Biggest and Best. 
         Something doesn't have to be "the best" to be good or "biggest" to be big. Besides, such absolutes would invite serious listeners — and there are some out there — to come up with an exception. Any exception. "The exception proves the rule" means exceptions test rules. If you've thrown out an absolute, one exception disproves your "rule."
         One common form is "everybody" and "nobody." We should know better. If your kid comes home and tells you "Everybody in seventh grade is getting lip studs," you're going to say "Name two," rattle off some families you're really, really sure won't have kids with lip studs, and end the argument.
         Similarly with something like "Nobody would want …." Check out the Internet. If it's something sexual, there's probably a website devoted to devotees of what "Nobody would want."
         If you've dealt with humans a fair amount, you should know to be careful with absolute generalizations about people. There are always at least trivial exceptions, so even when you're really sure of your assertion, try, "With only trivial exceptions, if any, everybody/nobody …."

Political Metonyms/Synecdoches: This is mostly for journalists and other political writers and is more familiar than it sounds. If you're from the UK or part of the old British Empire, you can talk of a "Crown Prosecutor" without much danger of people thinking a piece of fancy headgear has a staff of lawyers (or barristers?).
         But if you talk of "Whitehall" for some part of the government of the United Kingdom — or "the Whitehouse" or "Kremlin" or "Capitol Hill" — there are problems. The buildings and such don't do things; people do, and you need to do your best to name the people or explain why you don't need to.
         It sounds much more impressive to report, "The Whitehouse said today," than, "a media release from some flack whose name I've forgotten reads in part." Still, in the Time of Trump and Tribulations, in the time of accusations of fake news — and the fact of fake news — in the time as always, where people who do stuff often want to avoid responsibility, spell it the hell out.

Embedded Lies, or at Least Embedded-and-Assumed Arguable Assertions:
         This one I've written on before, in the case of the phrase "alcohol and drugs." There's an assertion buried in that phrase: "alcohol is not a drug." One can argue that the phrase is just a short form for "alcohol and other drugs" or "alcohol and illicit drugs" or "alcohol vs. drugs used by less respectable people than alcohol users." Uh-huh. Just say "alcohol and other drugs," or be prepared to argue, "Alcohol is not a drug," and offer a sensible definition of "drug" that excludes alcohol.

         Well, and so forth, including "polite nothings" where every now and then maybe we should tell someone, "Well, you've got other clothes that make you look better" and respond to "How are you?" with something short but fairly honest, or maybe just "Thank you for asking."

         It's difficult: English is a highly figurative language, and the vast majority are harmless (any many are fun). Listen, though, for the dangerous ones and try as much as possible to stick to truth.
         Except when you're sitting around swapping lies, and everyone knows that's what you're doing. But when someone says, "Really?!" and it's not, emphatically not really real, just say, "Nah. I'm bullshitting."

         Oh — and if you've got a job as some high-power but ultimately sleazy flack doing PR or deceptive advertising: Quit. Repent. Go straight.

No comments:

Post a Comment