language

THE DISTINCTIVE ODOUR OF BULLSHIT

There are phrases that cause you to pause, and wonder exactly what was just said. A pivotal one for me was when an account director at an ad agency I worked at in the 90s showed me some leaflets promoting jobs at a department store. I asked why they'd chosen to do that rather than go the more conventional route of a newspaper ad. "We tried that," he said, "but the ethnic response was too high."

I knew something significant had happened, but it took me a while to untangle the knotty meaning from the apparently straightforward packaging in which it was presented. The speaker had been so comfortable in what he was saying that its full ugliness wasn't immediately apparent. What he meant was, too many black people had applied for the jobs. The idea of 'too many' is an interesting one, and seems to suggest that a threshold had been breached. In this case, it came down to a nice middle class department store not wanting to dismay its customers with non-white faces. Only, in the meeting where the decision to create the leaflet was cooked up, I'm confident neither account handler nor the store's HR person would have used words like race or discrimination - they just wanted the store's staffing to be on-brand. Hence, put flyers through doors in leafy suburbs where reassuringly pale people could be found, who would remind shoppers of their nephews, nieces, grandchildren.

If there'd been a smoking gun document about that meeting and the thinking involved, I'd have passed it on to The Guardian or Private Eye. But the nature of such discussions is they happen in person - more often than not, man to man. For me it guaranteed that, sooner or later, I'd be gone from that agency. Having grown up among my father's students, who came from Malaysia, Ghana, Hong Kong, Uganda and elsewhere, I knew where I stood - had since I was about 7, when one of dad's Nigerian students told us that a tailor he'd asked to make him a jacket asked if he should leave room for sir's tail.

Bigots have no joy, no humour about them. Anything like that in you shrivels up when you choose to look at the world through the bone-framed lenses of the fearful and greedy. You need them, to give you distance, and witness a world that's going to the dogs (and not the way dad did when he took his students to Hall Green greyhound track to show them a bit of British culture). Loneliness makes you paranoid say mental health researchers, and one of the easiest ways to be lonely in a world as big as ours is by deliberately making other people 'them' and contrasting that group with an ever-dwindling 'us'.

We all warp reality in our own special ways, and make language do awkward things to fit what we want to get across, but there's a particular variety of it done by people with power that's instructive to watch. It was the odious Tory Grant Shapps who introduced me to the curious expression 'misspoke', when he used that word to express some lies he'd been caught in. Using 'misspoke' has some tentative implication that actually, Shapps had every intention of being a straight-up guy, but just as he was about to drop some truth some bollocks came out instead.

And now Labour's Diane Abbott has used the phrase. She had all the right numbers lined up in her head to explain how the party will pay for 10,000 cops, but rubbish fell out of her mouth. Like when you're eating, and crumbs bail out. Hillary Clinton said she misspoke too, when describing how she dodged bullets in Bosnia - which didn't happen. 

Getting things wrong is fine. It's what human beings do. What 'misspoken' does is position the speaker as some kind of superhuman, whose heart is pure but whose mind became mush and let tumblewords fall from the hole in heir face, perhaps due to the Kryptonite of an astute question or awkward observation.

Politicians believing they're more than human is just as unhelpful as bigots believing some people are subhuman. It's the same crap, which draws a distinction between the speaker and the world at large. I'm pretty sure I'll fall for it myself again soon, maybe even later today. But at least I know what to watch out for.

 

 

 

BACON AND BIGOTRY

So, I went to an event recently. A comics convention, to promote the online story Dadtown that I script. People came from all over the country to attend, including a couple of guys at the table next to ours who were up from London. One of them, having got up early to get to Nottingham, hadn't eaten breakfast and was experiencing a serious need for bacon. 

We weren't in an area strong on greasy-spoon cafes, but there was a franchise coffee place in a nearby hotel. They had a variety of breakfast offerings in which bacon didn't feature, except once when ingredients like rocket were also implicated. I noticed that beyond the coffee area and in the hotel space was a kitchen serving a buffet breakfast. That wasn't the solution my new London friend needed - he was looking for bacon sandwiches for himself and his colleague, a different proposition. Or was it?

What I could see - and smell - was that the buffet had bacon. What stopped the London guy was the concept of a buffet, and its price, something like £9. Which meant he'd let an idea get in the way of the reality of the situation. I've done the same in other contexts - we all have. I just happened to see it in action with someone else on this occasion. 

I pointed out the possibility, and within a couple of minutes he'd got one plate layered with rashers, and another piled high with slices of bread. He spent the next few minutes constructing bacon sandwiches, and the staff - amused - were happy to help by providing a bag to take them away. He constructed enough tasty looking bacon butties that the price per sandwich compared well with what he'd have paid in a cafe, which wasn't going to happen anywhere in the vicinity of hotel and convention.

What's interesting here is how language got in the way of intention. Desire - for bacon sandwiches - was thwarted temporarily by the word 'buffet'. Even though the buffet included bacon, there was implicit within 'buffet' the notion of sitting down to eat a variety of tastiness, which wasn't on the agenda given the desire to head back to the convention.

I like this example precisely because of its triviality. The subtle nuances of language are part of its power. A sign that says Whites Only is pretty blatant in what it expresses. The realities of prejudice are often more subtle. When I worked at an ad agency one of the directors told me, when I asked why targeted leaflet drops had been used to attract staff for one client rather than a newspaper ad, replied "We tried that, but the ethnic response was too high".

It took a minute to untangle the racism implicit in what he'd said, which was effectively that 'too many' non-white people had applied for the client's jobs. And I'm pretty sure that neither the ad agency guy or the client representative would have mentioned in their meeting that what they were doing could be considered racist. It's even possible that they had no awareness of the matter at all, their heads full of language about brand identity that tangentially supported the idea that a given company's employees should be white - which is why they'd targeted a leafy suburb with their leaflets.

Robert Anton Wilson, whose work has shaped me considerably, wrote "the words we use influence the thoughts we think more than the thoughts we think influence the language we use". I read that over 20 years ago, and the observation remains potent. Wilson himself was influenced by reading Alfred Korzybski, and if you want to really dig deep into how words and thinking and perception go together, contemplate this quote from his Science & Sanity. "We read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use."

Our ability to see through the constraints of language is instrumental to the ideas we conceive. Join us in exploring this and other themes in a Creativity & Innovation workshop on Tuesday November 10.