Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Sanitized language

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal I happened to notice in the jump this headline: "Cruise Ships Battle Virus Issue." I presumed that the article was about the mysterious "norovirus" that rears its head anywhere large groups of leisure tourists or old people or both congregate -- Las Vegas hotels, cruise ships, nursing homes, and so on. And to a degree it was, though the real "battle" the cruise operators were fighting was against language, as they are hoping to have the word "outbreak" stricken from the Center for Disease Control lexicon because they feel its an unfair way to describe hundreds of people on a boat becoming ill from a virus. If the CDC "used the words 'increased incidences,' it wouldn't be misreported by the media," said the cruise operators' trade group president, who has apparently been learning carefully from the U.S. president, who wages his own war on language vis-a-vis his efforts to gut the Social Security program and turn it into a handout to investment-fund managers. (The word private is verboten; members of the press corps who dare defy the party line are repremanded.)

Of course, conservatives are quick to heap ridicule on college crusades for "politically correct" language in describing minority groups, on the grounds that these strictures needlessly inhibit critical thought, unfairly persecute people for honest mistakes, and divert attention from the study of root causes of discrimination by applying a patronizing linguistic band-aid on the matter. And all that may well be true. But their current, highly hypocritical Newspeak campaign suggests they know full well the power and legitimacy of the argument proponents of "politically correct" language proffer, and they combat it because they prefer having discrimination and inequality and short-circuited reasoning embedded at the level of everyday discourse. (Indeed, the term "politically correct" is a perfect example of pejorative language from the right acquiring a kind of everyday utility, of the war of ideas being won at the meme-level.) Of course, political spin is nothing new. It's just the overt strong-arming and policing of it, the recruitment of the press to conduct it -- these are things more commonly associated with Pravda than The New York Times. It's strange that these governmental efforts to control not just the flow of information but the meaning of words themselves are now safely conducted right out in the open. Perhaps such efforts have always been made, and its the new reach of media that is making these totalitarian efforts more overt.

But what the cruise ships are trying to do reminds me of what I hoped my doctor would do for me when I was nebulously ill in December. I wanted a reassuring story line that made sense of my symptoms, I wanted illness described away by comforting language. In a way, this is what the cruise-ship operators want to do too -- unable to eradicate the virus by sanitizing bathrooms and buffet lines, they want to eradicate it by sanitizing language.

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