The Threat of Impact
by Stephen Cox | Posted May 22, 2013
I’m delighted by the news about the Benghazi memos. It seems that the CIA, the State Department, and the White House subjected those brief statements to more than a dozen revisions. Thank God — someone has finally learned the secret of good writing: revise, revise, revise.
That was sarcasm, what I just said.
But seriously, folks: people can do too much revising. In the words of Alexander Pope, “There’s a happiness, as well as care.” President Obama was not in the happiest vein when, on May 16, he entertained a question about when the White House found out about the persecution of rightwing groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He delivered an answer that probably took a battalion of White House counselors all night to produce: “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. [Inspector General’s] report before the I.G. report had been leaked through the press."So he didn’t know about the report? I assume, from this answer, that he knew about the thing. After all, Republicans had been complaining about it for years.
Anyway, this is more good news for Word Watch. If the president and his friends keep making statements like that, there’s going to be a lot more hilarity ahead. I just wish that Steven Miller, interim grand sachem of the IRS, had stayed in office a bit longer. Seldom have petulance and stupidity been so lovingly joined as they were in his congressional testimony. If Miller speaks, I will listen.
But Word Watch itself can bear some watching. The last column had issues. . . . And I guess that’s all you need to know.
Just kidding. If I were a government official or a corporate “spokesman” (an odd word — most appropriate, perhaps, for a potentate of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), issues would be the word I’d use to tell you, “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”
Issues, as I mentioned last time, is the universal word. It can mean anything, and nothing. Usually nothing. It’s a word that shuts off debate. Arguments, controversies, contentions, dissensions, everything but a burial at sea — issues will obscure them all.
When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?
But let’s move on. Let’s get beyond that . . . I usually don’t respond to readers who have issues with what I write. I figure that after I’ve had my own say, which is plenty, they deserve to have theirs. And God bless them for noticing what I say. But Paul Bartlett was kind enough to respond at length to the last version of this column, and to respond in a way that strongly invites my own response http://libertyunbound.com/node/1045. He picks up on the fact that I condoned the use of “tweet” but “castigate[d]” the use of “snuck.” So, he asks,
Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.
Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?
Controversial words! Thanks, Paul.
Sure, language changes. So does the weather, but I’d rather have a cloudless sky and 70 degrees Fahrenheit than a blizzard bearing down on me. And the fact that Chaucer is dead (he died in 1400, which is helpful in remembering what’s what in literary history) doesn’t signify. Vice President Biden is alive — do you want to talk like him? As opposed to John Dryden (who died in 1700)? Or Oscar Wilde (1900)? You see what I mean.
But those are easy examples. Chaucer, Dryden, and Wilde were among the greatest wits who ever graced our language; the current vice president is a mere buffoon. When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?
One consideration is the connotations of a word. If you want to sound like a backwoods character, sure, use “snuck,” because that’s its ethos and connotation, the bowl in which it swam (not swum) until quite recently. It’s never really left that bowl. It can’t leave, because whenever it tries to do so, it blunders into “sneaked,” which means the same thing, except that it’s associated with a more educated group of speakers and listeners. “Sneaked” is not arcane; it’s not like “sware” as the past tense of “swore,” or “bare” as the past tense of “bear.” But it was universally employed in formal writing and speaking until approximately 2008. There is no reason to replace it.
“Impact” is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction.
Thomas Jefferson, no mean judge of words, said that “necessity obliges us [Americans] to neologize.” He also said, “Certainly so great [and] growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”
Tell me, what variety of climates, of productions, or of arts, what new circumstances impel us to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked”? Or “impact,” instead of all the things that would be better in its place?
And that is another consideration — not just the existence of a traditional word with established and appropriate connotations, but the existence of a variety of words that are obliterated by some new and brutal imposition.
Your boss sends you a memo. It says that your company is being impacted by something. It could be anything: the annual test of the fire alarm, the arrival of federal investigators, the news of China’s ability to market a 50-dollar widget for 50 cents (notice: I said “market,” not “sell”; “sell” is the older verb, but it has slightly different connotations). The “impact”could be serious or trivial. So why the hell doesn’t he say what he thinks it is?
Impact connotes violence. It’s a word appropriate to the sad results of a sudden lane change, or the landing of an asteroid on downtown Dayton. But here is a partial list of words for which impacted is regularly forced to substitute:
Impacted covers and obscures the individual meanings of all those words, and more. Often it’s intended to do so, by people who don’t want to specify their meanings, by people who have contempt for their readers’ intelligence or curiosity. But when that’s not the intention, impacted still prevents your audience from understanding what you mean to say — if you mean to say anything, instead of simply emitting some syllables that will relieve you of thought. Like issues, impact is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction. As such, it is to be rigorously opposed and mercilessly eradicated by all people friendly to language in its true and vital forms.
So much for pseudo- and degenerate neology. Unfortunately, I have other business left over from the preceding Word Watch — the peculiar affairs of the very peculiar Tsarnaev family, and what is turning out to be the very peculiar business of reporting on them.
Plenty of stuff has now appeared about how the elder of the Boston bombers was shellshocked (victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome) because of whatever went on in Chechnya (a place where, by the way, neither of the brothers ever lived), so naturally he had to become anti-American(!) and start blowing people up at the Boston Marathon. Not the Moscow Marathon, mind you, although you might have expected that, given the scunner that Chechens have against Russians. No, it was the Boston Marathon — as if anyone in Boston gave a damn about Chechnya. But I guess that’s where victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome flock, from all over the world — to Boston. They don’t stop on the way, in some Islamic country. No. They’re like all the other victims of American imperialism: they seek shelter in America. I heard an expert on the psychology of people under stress refer to the younger bomber as “this beautiful young man.” I’m not sure he’s as cute as all that, but so what? And this was on Fox News, the world headquarters of patriotic American anti-terrorism.
But let’s get to the intellectual and religious meat of this subject. On April 28 I found online an AP report on the mother of the Boston bombers. http://news.yahoo.com/mother-bomb-suspects-found-deeper-spirituality-224317582.htmlThe title attracted my curiosity: “Mother of bomb suspects found deeper spirituality.” Really! I thought. Is this the same woman, the woman who goes on television, spewing hysterical accusations against the United States? Indeed it was. But what was the evidence of this deeper spirituality, of its “finding,” and of its interesting effects? Was it a new conception of the cosmos, such as the Buddha attained at his moment of enlightenment? Was it a recovery of the Sufis’ bliss? Of the ethical vision of Muhammed? Was it something like St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? Or Sojourner Truth’s responsiveness to the call of God? Or the nobility of Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man"?
Interest increases when one recalls that “deeper” is a comparative term. This spiritual discovery — it was deeper than something else. Deeper than what? Deeper than the spiritualities just mentioned? Doubtful. Then perhaps it was deeper than the subject’s former spirituality? So what was that?
Well, forget it. It was nothing but a bunch of syllables in a press report. (And, you may ask, why is that any different from anything else the AP hands out?) It seems that Mrs. Tsarnaev was just a woman who “went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that — many followers of Martin Luther King were people of humble occupations, though of deep religious conviction, when they risked their lives and livelihoods in his campaign for a moral ideal. But in the case of Mrs. Tsarnaev, that was it. That was all. There wasn’t any more. That was the end. Period. You now know everything. There was no spirituality whatever in Mrs. Tsarnaev’s past.
Well, all right, never mind the comparative. At some point, she was hit by a deeper spirituality. You might say it impacted her. And what was that point? According to the article, it was the point at which she “began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.” Again, that’s it. That’s the deeper spirituality. She changed her clothes and started babbling nonsense.
Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Tsarnaev says she found a deeper spirituality: “Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She's no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent. ‘It's all lies and hypocrisy,’ she told The Associated Press in Dagestan. ‘I'm sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children.’”
St. Francis couldn’t have said it better.
As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. T can say anything she wants. There are plenty of crazy people in this world, and several of them on my street at any given moment. But for a news organization to project this particular crazy person’s claims as valid — that’s another matter. It’s not just a question of fact; it’s a question of values. Calling her ideas “spiritual,” because she asserts they are, suggests an attitude toward spirituality that is roughly equivalent to a rural pastor’s concept of sex among the ancient Romans — it’s just as ignorant, only more contemptuous about the topic under discussion.
And worse, at least from a journalistic point of view — ignorant and contemptuous about the audience. If you publish a news report in which you examine the philosophical thought of Mickey Mouse and speculate about how he would have married Minnie, years ago, if he hadn’t been a victim of Hollywood’s traumatic impact on young stars, you are showing contempt for your audience. But even that would show less contempt than publicizing the notion of Mrs. Tsarnaev’s spirituality, or entertaining the idea that terrorism comes from stress, or — to recall another recent instance — taking seriously the claim that when the Internal Revenue Service selected hundreds of nonprofit orgs for administrative torture because their names included such terms as “Patriot” and “Tea Party,” this was simply a rogue, low-level, unauthorized training experiment and attempt at efficiency.
We meet this on every side: the assumption that we can be fooled. Political discourse is routinely motivated by that assumption. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Just try to have your computer fixed. Eventually, the fixers will call you with incomprehensible news about what went wrong and what they need to do about it, something that is invariably expensive, inconvenient, and mystifying. If you ask what they mean by the terms they use, they become offended. If you ask for an explanation, they tell you, “I just gave you one.”
But keep asking questions. Keep track of how long it takes the people on the phone to say they need to talk to their Chief Technician and get back to you. Then keep track of how many questions you need to ask the Chief Technician before he or she reveals a need to read the diagnostics. (What? Is this the Mayo Clinic?) “Oh,” you say, “you haven’t had a chance to read them yet?” Now observe the reluctance with which your collocutor responds. There was nothing behind that curtain of words.
Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value. This isn’t true of my carpenter, who tells me that he “just likes to fix stuff.” But it’s true of the millions who are employed to communicate. Some are hired by government, others by private organizations that seem, almost inevitably, to ape the style of government. But these millions can’t actually communicate much of anything, because they don’t know anything, and they assume that everybody else is as dumb as they are. Dumb — or dumber.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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