February 14, 2008

My Language Crimes at The New York Times

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin -- Journalism has much to be humble about, but one special area where journalists need to tread with special diffidence and without mindless stomping is language.

Generally, journalists believe themselves to be experts at language. So did I, at one point. But now I believe that I was wearing enormous blinders during the ten years I worked as a staff reporter at The New York Times, and then later worked as a bureau chief for Bloomberg News in London and Hong Kong.

Today, I think that I was basically sleepwalking, language-wise, during those years as a mainstream news reporter and editor.

On a daily basis, I believe that I unconsciously but serially committed two capital language crimes as a journalist (two at least).

My first language crime was that by the rules of objectivity, I believed that my language was basically neutral. I believed that I was passing along to readers the key facts of any given story, while leaving it to the readers to sort and prioritize those facts to use as they wished.

I believed likewise that my own beliefs and prejudices were, thanks to objectivity, mostly absent from my stories, and that the prerogatives of assessment, judgment and opinion lay almost entirely with readers.  

Nuts and Bolts

Then, in recent years, I read Plato’s Phaedrus, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and Roland Barthes, who wrote the deathless line that “language is never innocent.” I took a new look at newspapers to verify that line for myself and became convinced along with Plato, Aristotle and Barthes that all language is fundamentally persuasive.

Every writer is basically trying to persuade the reader of certain things, especially of the writer’s own authority and worldview.

The means of persuasion are standard usage, narrative structure, vocabulary (especially metaphor), syntax and grammar – the given, assumed, overlooked nuts and bolts of language.

While visibly holding language together at its joints and seams, these mechanical devices also are carrying out a covert operation on the meaning of language, which in its influence outweighs by far what is actually said.

This stealth-layer of language endorses the writer’s worldview via an encoded set of ideals, values, and ironclad social ranking and status norms. Readers unconsciously decode these meanings as effortlessly as the writer encodes them, so quickly and easily that the process goes unnoticed.

To write unconsciously of this whole process is therefore to unconsciously endorse the status quo. By brute repetition and other means, ordinary language thus congeals the harmful views, hurtful categories and gross injustices of rank and process that are embedded in daily life.

Human Boundaries

My second language crime was to fetishize a plain-English writing style as a cure-all against government propaganda, corporate corruption, and all other forms of evil in the world.

In my college and early professional years, I read my copy of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language,” to little bits. Absorbing Orwell completely, I believed with passion that bold clear sentences map a simple reality that can be shared across all human boundaries.

But then in recent years I read George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and their book Metaphors We Live By. And I discovered the work of many other scientists, linguists, and political scientists who are making important  empirical discoveries today in the field of language and morals, such as Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Stephen Pinker, and Drew Westen.

As Plato and Aristotle did with rhetoric, showing how persuasive intent underlies all language, so these scholars have now done with metaphor, laying bare its fundamental role in language and morals. But they've exceeded the ancients by using science to demonstrate how language works at the level of brain structures and body chemistry, to underlie virtually all human action and language -- including the kind we inordinately prize as "rational."  

These scientists have peeled back the surface of language to show the hidden engines underneath. They’ve linked brain structure to morality and language.

"Girly Man"

Specifically, their research has shown that powerful brain structures – the specific neuronal linkages responsible for creating metaphors -- drive our reasoning process at an emotional level far beneath conscious reasoning.

The metaphors or “frames” generated by these neuronal linkages activate huge webs of meaning across the physical brain, which instantly align a human being with an entire worldview including passionate likes and dislikes, altruism and prejudice, blithe airs of apathy and do-or-die zeals.

To connect this to the newsroom, a reporter might, for example, insert the phrase “girly man” into a story, repeating what he heard a politician say in a big speech at a convention.

As he does so the journalist might say to himself, “Say what you will but Arnold Schwarzenegger sure makes a great story. I’ve got a spot of color now in my piece, and they’ll be talking tomorrow at the water cooler!”

And yet, with that one not-innocent sprinkling of pixels into his story, the reporter surrenders his moral autonomy to political speechwriters who know that just the right metaphor, uttered at just the right time, sways millions of voters in their direction. A strong metaphor – miracle of miracles! – even makes people vote against their own personal interests, time after time.

New Knowledge

If journalists aren’t humbled by the knowledge that despite their best intentions they are used like this by their sources and spinners 24/7/365, I don’t know if they ever could be humbled, or whether they even care.

The world today is bursting with new knowledge -- much of it the result of hard scientific research -- about the moral basis and uses of language.

When is journalism going to sit down and absorb this new knowledge and integrate it into the ethics and practices of the craft?

For Part 1 of the lecture, click here.
To comment or discuss, click here.

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