A new year is beginning — a good time to get rid of things we don’t need, including “friends” who are actually just enablers of our addictions, weaknesses, and stupidities. This is hard; we may not be able to live without our human enablers. We can, however, start to clear out some of our verbal ones.
Here is a list of five expressions eligible for the dump. These locutions are overused; they are almost always misused; they are frequently tools of deceit; at the best they usurp the place of appropriate words. People lean on them to convince themselves that they know how to write, have something to say, and are the victims of conscienceless hate if nobody pays any attention. They are the verbal equivalents of a doting mother, feeding her child all the cake and whisky it craves. And they are hardy; they have enjoyed a sickening longevity.
See if you agree with my choices:
Focus. Suppose you’re asked an embarrassing question — something that is bound to happen if you are an embarrassing person. Joe Biden is an embarrassing person, and of course his press secretaries are as well, so it follows that they should spend their lives harping on the word “focus.” Asked why Biden and his wife, who were always interested in making other people “mask up,” were walking around a restaurant without their own masks on, Chief Propaganda Officer Jen Psaki said:
I don’t think we should lose the forest through the trees here in that our objective here is to get more people vaccinated, make sure that that schools and companies around the country can put in place requirements to save more lives and keep people safer and not overly focus on moments in time that don’t reflect overarching policy.
I don’t want to get distracted by asking what is the difference between a policy and an overarching policy, or between a moment and a moment in time. Maybe I don’t need to mention that the current White House line is that the Biden administration never mandated (i.e., ordered or required) anyone to do anything. I do want to observe that the question about the Bidens’ masking was not answered. What rose out of the wreck of words was the importance of correct focus. Scum, being lighter than substance, usually is able to rise like that.
These locutions are overused; they are almost always misused; they are frequently tools of deceit; at the best they usurp the place of appropriate words.
“Focus” is an attempt to say that however important X may be, Y is more important, without discussing X or perhaps even saying what it is. Brendan Whitworth, ex-CIA agent and current CEO of Anheuser-Busch, was asked in a highly sympathetic TV interview whether it might possibly, conceivably have been a mistake to pair his company with Dylan Mulvaney, the, shall we say, slightly over the top online trans person, a pairing that cost the company about a quarter of its business. Whitworth, who looks and talks exactly like something AI would generate if you told it you wanted “handsome, hunky, brainless,” delivered himself of the following:
We — Bud Light has supported LGBTQ since 1998. So that’s 25 years. And, as we’ve said from the beginning, we’ll continue to support the communities and organizations that we’ve supported for decades. But as we move forward [as opposed to backward], you know, we want to focus on what we do best, which is brewing great beer for everyone . . .
By “support” he means “advertise at gay events.” And I can say without fear of contradiction that 25 years ago there wasn’t any “T” in LG, etc., or any “Q” either, since “queer” was properly regarded in the gay and lesbian community as a term of opprobrium. But never mind. The topic was the idiotic performances of Dylan Mulvaney and Bud’s attempt to use them for advertising. Without saying “just effing forget about Mulvaney,” or uttering the word “Mulvaney,” Whitworth refocused the subject to his desire to “brew great beer.” As someone who has tasted Bud Light, I eagerly anticipate the day when he starts brewing beer that is even palatable. Putting all cattiness aside, I wonder if this was the kind of thing he said when he was working for the CIA. Probably was.
Now we have Mary Elizabeth (“Liz”) Magill, who lost her job as president of the University of Pennsylvania after “apologizing” for testimony she gave before a congressional committee. I’m glad somebody finally lost a job (Whitworth hasn’t), but I’m still annoyed that she stared into the teleprompter and took refuge in focus:
There was a moment during yesterday’s congressional hearing on antisemitism when I was asked if a call for the genocide of Jewish people on our campus would violate our policies. In that moment, I was focused on our University’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable. I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.
Magill’s reliance on focus revealed something other than what she intended, something that she apparently is not smart enough to realize. As a college president, she had an enviable opportunity to educate her audience about the issues involved with free but detestable speech — but she was too goddamned dumb to be able to focus on more than one thing at a time. Only when she got home, got some rest, and scrolled through her inbox did her brain jog over onto another focus, which she rushed to reveal on TV. What a genius! And so are they all.
As someone who has tasted Bud Light, I eagerly anticipate the day when he starts brewing beer that is even palatable.
Space. This started as a hippie-dippy word for things the speaker couldn’t, or couldn’t be bothered to, define. “You’re getting’ in my space, dude.” Oh, I’m sorry — I didn’t know! What is your space, anyway? And there was a lot of talk about “headspace.” Then space became a term of professional analysis for academics who would have been hippies if they’d had more sense, or heart, or something — the people who write articles about “queering the anti-colonialist space in the discourse of gender.” It was then adopted as pseudoscientific tech by such imperial bureaucrats as Christopher Wray of the FBI, who was asked in a Senate hearing about the FBI’s practice of confiding to selected people that certain information may be a Russian “plant,” thus making it seem false even though it may be true. Senator Grassley (R-IA) inquired whether the FBI has “a criteria [sic] that it uses to evaluate whether information is or isn’t disinformation,” to which Wray replied:
I think sometimes this gets lost in a lot of the public commentary: We’re not out there investigating whether or not information that we see floating around is truthful or false, in the first instance. Our focus in the malign foreign influence space, which is I think what you’re driving at, is on whether or not there’s a foreign adversary of some sort potentially trying to push the information.
In plain words, no; the FBI doesn’t give a damn whether something is true or not — despite the fact that the spy org is focused in a space it considers malign. Dude, dig this: you can have this space, dude, that’s, like true, but it’s also malign! How crazy is that! Please notice how space attracts focus, as one stray piece of Scotch tape attracts another.
Finally space reached the exalted space of conservative journalism, and National Review could opine of certain Supreme Court decisions that they “will advance the progress of the law toward a vibrant space for democracy.” Picture a space for democracy. Now picture it vibrating. Can’t do it, can you? But you can see how far the editorial standards of NR have declined since the days of William F. Buckley.
In plain words, no; the FBI doesn’t give a damn whether something is true or not.
Around. The misuse of this preposition had approximately the same origin and development as space — hippie to hierarchy in just a few dopey jumps. When you read the following quotations, ask yourself why someone would want to use around instead of (first quotation) because of or (second quotation) about:
Fox News on media censorship:
The third, fourth and fifth installments of the “Twitter Files” focused [dang, there it is again] on the permanent suspension of former President Trump around the Capitol riot events in January 2021.
A Harvard spokesman on an exceedingly rare instance of a university being too proud to take a government handout:
As a result of . . . the evolving guidance [think: Darwin in the Galapagos, confronting evolutionary changes in species of guidance] being issued around use of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, Harvard has decided not to seek or accept the funds allocated to it by statute.
It may be fun to picture President Trump suspended somewhere around the Capitol, or to try (and fail) to picture guidance being scattered around a use, but that’s not what the writers had in mind, if anything. Why not solve the problem by using the obvious and appropriate prepositions? Because you don’t know that there is a problem. That, I think, is the ordinary explanation for the grotesque uses of around that we hear every day. But if someone says, as phonies are always saying, “we must all be aware of the important issues around [whatever],” that person is probably trying to deceive, as anyone is when urging an imperative that cannot be defined. The issues are around here, somewhere. It’s the open-field method: place a small object in a large field, and dare anyone to find it.
Values, core values, community values, community standards, our standards, et cetera, ad nauseam. When somebody has a post removed from a social medium, a sign goes up: “This Post Removed for Violation of Community Standards.” It means nothing except that the company wants to take the thing down. Maybe there’s a good reason; maybe there’s not. The strategy is to preempt critical discussion. The same goes for the constant palaver about our heritage of values, the values we hold as a community, the values that guide our firm, and all the other mission-statement, congressional-testimony, and heartwarming-advertisement crap.
No one asked what the hell he meant by a “social conversation,” or what he had learned from this great big dialogue that might justify his preachment.
In truth, only individuals have values; Harvard, Tumblr, and General Motors do not. If you ask them to state their “values,” their PR staff will give you a menu: compassion, fairness, sensitivity, equity — you can dine here all day, if you don’t mind starving. The terms are distinguished only by their lack of definition. None of the waiters can be charged with bringing you the wrong dish. “I wanted compassion, and you’re totally rude to me!” “Oh, that is simply fairness, sir! I am surprised you do not recognize it!” It’s interesting to me that when prison inmates put up ads to get people to write to them, one of their leading adjectives for themselves is “compassionate.” Of course, no examples are ever given; readers are free to imagine their own — and relinquish all right to object when their ideas don’t match what they receive.
Conversation, national conversation, dialogue, renewed dialogue, etc. Like values talk, dialogue talk is a way of preventing dialogue. No one who uses such terms ever wants to talk with you. The idea is always for you to listen to him. Among other things Brendan Whitworth learned in the CIA was apparently how to “converse” about “conversation”:
There’s a big social conversation taking place right now and big brands are right in the middle of it. . . . So for us, what we need to understand, deeply understand and appreciate, is the consumer. And what they want, what they care about and what they expect from big brands . . .
My source adds “[more in this vein].” No one asked what the hell he meant by a “social conversation” (social as opposed to conversing by yourself), or what he had learned from this great big dialogue that might justify his preachment about the things that “we” (who — me?) need to “understand and appreciate” so very “deeply.” Apparently, he wasn’t enjoying the conversation very much, but he stressed the importance of “being humble in listening” to consumers, whose alleged loyalty he found heartening. Remember the original issue: a lot of consumers have stopped consuming his product. But it was clear that when it came to business, he thought in terms of conversations, whatever that meant. In a public statement he went so far as to say that his “time serving this country” had taught him
the importance of accountability and the values upon which America was founded: freedom, hard work and respect for one another. As CEO of Anheuser-Busch, I am focused [of course] on building and protecting our remarkable history and heritage.
I care deeply about this country, this company, our brands and our partners. I spend much of my time traveling across America, listening to and learning from our customers, distributors and others.
Moving forward [again, instead of backward], I will continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.
I know that by now you’re screaming in agony, but why? Is it because you can’t find such “founding” values as “hard work and respect for one another” in the Declaration of Independence? Is it because Whitworth’s argument, if there is one, depends solely on his private feelings — how deeply he cares, how much he is focused, how dedicated he is to beer? Is it because you’re reminded of the president of Harvard, who in “apologizing” for her congressional testimony (similar to that of Magill) emphasized the idea that her mistake was “fail[ing] to convey what is my truth” — truth varying with the owner? Is it because you’ve had enough of people waving their hands about “the values” and providing their own ad hoc lists of them? Or is it because you’ve realized that the otherwise insignificant Brendan Whitworth is addressing you in the same stone-stupid way as all the other corporate heads, civic leaders, exalted educators, and world-renowned humanitarians, who, like him, somehow retain their positions, despite their talk of accountability?
Probably you’re disgusted about all of this, because unlike these people you have an intelligent mind, not a squadron of greedy synapses. For that, and for your faithful, though often critical, attention to this column during the past two decades, God bless you, every one.