Thursday, April 30, 2009


Today's papers announced that the government, on behalf of pig farmers everywhere, is lobbying to get the medical community and the media to find a new name for swine flu, worried that people will stop eating pork in the midst of this emerging pandemic. Forget for a moment that the same papers and doctors have made it clear that you can't get the virus from eating anything — this isn't a disease like trichinosis — but only from another person (or possibly an animal) already infected with this particular strain of the flu.

I understand the concern, but they're a bit late, since the pig is already out of the poke, and 'swine flu' is already part of our vernacular. This flu is genuinely scary, but what we're talking about is really a question of semantics.

People don't eat swine anyway, they eat pork. Or ham. Farmers raise pigs and herd swine so we can eat bacon. The meaning of the terms might be variations on a theme, but the power of the words and the net impression they leave are entirely different.

As a writer I'm fascinated by words but also acutely aware of their power, and lately I've noticed an acceleration toward something predicted by George Orwell, practiced for years by the government, and perfected by corporations everywhere. In the novel 1984, Newspeak was double-talk, carefully chosen words which, when used in combination, meant nothing at all. Platitudes broadcast over the airwaves to create an illusion of stability. In a word, bullshit.

Homeland Security was a blanket term used to cover anything related to the post-9/11 world, but spending bills authorized under homeland security covered things like air conditioned garbage trucks for Newark, New Jersey; sanitation workers in the District of Columbia attending Dale Carnegie classes; and ferries to shuttle people to Martha's Vineyard. No kidding. Not exactly mission-critical initiatives in the war on terror.

But I can't call it the war on terror anymore, because now the government wants to refer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as "overseas contingency operations." And apparently acts of terrorism are now "man-caused disasters."

Really? Because I'm not buying it. My office is a man-caused disaster — just look at my desk — but a car bomb is another thing entirely, something terrifying and evil, no matter whose side you're on. I get that the official goal is to take the fear out of the rhetoric, but in its place we're left with morally ambiguous phrases that sound like they were generated in a boardroom at an accounting firm or the marketing department at Coke.

Because didn't major corporations take this idea and run with it during the nineties? I remember sitting in meetings and being told by clients that they would no longer be discussing any problems or market losses, but instead would refer to their challenges and opportunities. This was announced with a zeal that suggested the people rolling out the new company-approved jargon actually believed that calling a problem by another name turned it into less of a problem, or that the people working in the local markets would suddenly feel better about all the opportunities that were being created by a new competitor kicking their ass.

This has happened under Republicans and Democrats, at companies big and small. And the trend continues, which raises a few interesting questions.

Do the powers that be really think we're that stupid, or is it our own damn fault because we've become too passive or too afraid to call bullshit on all the political correctness that no one really bought into in the first place? Have we forgotten how to talk plainly, look someone in the eye, and tell them how it is? Is this why The Daily Show and The Family Guy are more popular than ever, because those shows express an unspoken desire to cut through it all?

I don't have the answers, but maybe that's what I'm feeling, a frustration that we're all being bullshitted all the time. By the media, the companies we work for, and by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

It's a feeling that I would have expressed sooner, if only the words hadn't been taken away from me.


Lisa Bork said...

Tim -

Well said. And so early in the morning, too.

I remember "opportunities" being the big business buzzword for a while. It's sort of a glass half empty or glass half full sort of thing: more about attitude than a true difference. I prefer plain speaking myself.

And my child's school sent home a note about swine flu yesterday, designed to calm fears. All it did was frighten her. Flu is flu.

Feeding the Grey Cells said...

Yes, afraid of offending, ruffling feathers, not being PC....this is the world today.

An article on Bea Arthurs passing said too that shows she starred in such as Maude would no longer make it to the air, because networks would be too worried about offending others.

Don't get me wrong, there is certainly a need for tact, but aren't some of these controversial subjects the very debates that spurn ideas and ways to make the world a better place?

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great rant, Tim. Bullshit is bullshit, now matter how fancy you package it.

Cricket McRae said...

Excellent post. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are indeed passive, even willing recipients of the bullshit. Accepting what marketers (commercial or political, they're all marketers) tell them what to think, what to fear, or what they must buy, buy, buy is simply easier than thinking for themselves. It's infuriating and sad at the same time.

But maybe all I really need is a paradigm shift.

G.M. Malliet said...

"Man-caused disasters" is idiotic, and somehow just plain sad.

Alan Orloff said...

Nice rant, Tim.

Hey without challenges and opportunities, how could companies proffer solutions? People should call B.S. for what it is: male-bovine-caused excrement.

G.M. Malliet said...

"Down-sizing" and "right-sizing" are probably the very worst examples of corporate speak.

Jessica Lourey said...

Hey, is that Keith's head in the photo?

Julia Buckley said...

Government has always been good at cloaking truths in seemingly harmless euphemisms, or in creating things like an "axis of evil" in order to manipulate the masses.

I have chosen to appropriate the term "Swine flu" and use it in humorous ways. My children, who were initially frightened of the media's bombast of imagery showing the masked and frightened over and over (what's the visual rhetoric there?) have decided to do the same. It's very freeing.

And no one is going to use the new term--you're right about that, Tim.

Kim Smith said...

I created a new name for this strain of flu going around, quite by accident.

I wasn't wearing my glasses, you see. I glanced at the television and really believed the new name for it was HiNi Swine Flu.

I wanted to know how on earth they got the spelling wrong on that one.
Hiney has never been HiNi you see?

Of course once I had my glasses perched where they belonged I realized my mistake, H1N1 being the term instead.

Nevertheless, it was quite a moment.