Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cliche watch (again)

I've already written about how cliches like "we take this very seriously" don't mean much except in the bizarro world sense of meaning the opposite of what they say.

Now two of my other favorite political cliches are in the news.

One is the profession that one is doing something "in good faith," which if you look at the outcomes associated with such words is almost never the case.

Example from the New York Times:
Mr. Sampson’s e-mail message, sent to the White House and Justice Department colleagues, suggested he was hoping to stall efforts by the state’s two Democratic senators to pick their own candidates as permanent successors for Mr. Cummins.

“I think we should gum this to death,” Mr. Sampson wrote. “Ask the senators to give Tim a chance, meet with him, give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. If they ultimately say ‘no never’ (and the longer we can forestall that the better), then we can tell them we’ll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All this should be done in ‘good faith’ of course.”

That set of quotation marks says it all about the level of cynicism with which this phrase is too often employed.

The other is the perennial favorite of passive voice construction "mistakes were made." Again from the New York Times:

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else. It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.

It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident involving Janet Jackson. “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,” the agent said.

In 1991, Mr. Sununu, then the chief of staff to President George Bush, was caught violating various White House travel rules. He retreated behind the language of obfuscation. “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety,” he said. “Obviously, some mistakes were made.”

I teach this when I teach passive voice, not merely as an example of the construction but as an example of how language can be used in powerfully corrupt ways, and by powerful people, to distort and destroy meaning.

Examples like this can show students that we're not just saying that language matters because we're English teachers with a vested interest in abstruse subjects like voice and mode.

We're saying it because we understand that language is power, and the sooner students understand that, the better.

No comments: