Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Unspeak by Steven Poole – Book Review

by Carmen Nge

May 13. Sensitive issues. Apostasy. Malay special position. Keris. Whether uttered in the very public domain of live political meetings, or whispered behind closed doors, these words have the power to silence objections, dull criticism and promote self-censorship of the worst kind: thought erasure.

Steven Poole would call such words Unspeak because they carry with them “a whole unspoken argument” and “at the same time, it tries to unspeak—in the sense of erasing, or silencing—any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.”

In his new book, aptly titled Unspeak, Poole explains that politicians and the media are the ones guiltiest for devising, propagating and reinforcing Unspeak.

Himself a journalist, having written for The Guardian, The Times and other publications, Poole speaks from a position of knowledge as well as culpability. He argues that it is virtually impossible to extricate oneself from Unspeak because to do so would require the kind of time, energy, research and meticulous attentiveness that people just do not have. We rely on media to sift and analyze but this rarely happens.

In this era of information overload and sound bites (a paradox to be sure), media workers are forced to compress a huge amount of news into a tiny slot of airtime or a dwindling print space. Part of this problem is exacerbated by advertisers with fat budgets and a voracious appetite for media space. Media companies, who have to placate their owners and shareholders, comply by forfeiting or constricting their news slots. Politicians (some more adroitly than others) exploit this loophole by introducing sound bites of their own to compete with those from TVCs, marketing campaigns and numerous sales gimmicks.

But Poole argues that Unspeak is not new. Unspeak by any other name—propaganda, lies—has been around as early as Confucius; the only difference is that today, with mass media and the internet, Unspeak has become more efficient, insidious, and some may even claim, invincible.

So what are some of these Unspeak phrases that are being bandied around? Terror, terrorist, terrorist suspects. Abuse and torture. Freedom and democracy. Extremism. Regime change. Poole dissects and deconstructs a whole litany of terms that have snuck into common parlance by the dint of political machinations.

His description of the rhetorical contest between “global warming” and “climate change” is particularly lucid. Poole pinpoints the exact moment when the UN stopped using the former term in favour of the latter. In a 1998 UN General Assembly resolution, both terms were mentioned but a year later, another identical resolution was passed by the UN which completely dropped “global warming” from its lexicon.

Who is to blame? The US and states with oil interests, like Saudi Arabia, successfully lobbied to remove the term “global warming” from agreements and resolutions because the word “warming” clearly implied that something or someone was doing the warming. Since rising temperatures across the globe have been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, not the only but certainly the most damaging of pollutants, it was obvious which countries had a far bigger role to play in contributing to global warming.

Instead of taking proactive steps to reduce their levels of emissions, countries like the US instead opted for linguistic takeover. “Climate change” was introduced because it did not point to a specific problem with specific culprits. The term suggests that nature, rather than humans, is responsible for such fluctuations in temperature. Being a natural process, it seemed ludicrous to put pressure on certain countries to stop contributing to “climate change” because change will happen, whether humans exist or not. Furthermore, change is never absolutely bad. Heck, “climate change” can even be a good thing.

Countries who lobby for linguistic variations or politicians who initiate a new lexicon do so because they implicitly understand the power that language wields. Words, as Poole attests, can be highly effective weapons. Unspeak “skews meaning for political ends” and “it wants to bypass critical thinking” because it is only through the latter that the “Unspeak virus” as Poole calls it, can be neutralized.

In our own backyard, where critical thinking is in short supply, the Unspeak virus is freely multiplying. The fallout from the UMNO General Assembly is testimony to the consequences of words uttered by keris-referencing politicians. But instead of analyzing why certain MPs and speakers chose to harp on racial and religious sentiments, leaders of component parties and opposition groups called for apologies and restraint. Some even proposed that internal party meetings should not be telecast live.

The media frenzy that followed was also unsurprisingly unequivocal about one thing: the PM was right, and should be praised, for calling for tolerance and mutual respect in his winding-up speech. Thus, the goal of Unspeak—make the citizens rally around the PM—was achieved. The planned outcome of the assembly far outweighed the backlash it inspired.

The culture of self-censorship is undeniably entrenched in our country. Politicians, media and citizens alike routinely evoke Unspeak phrases like “sensitive issues” and “May 13” to silence dissent and debate. Poole tells us that Unspeak phrases elide complexity and promote a dominant way of thinking about the issue at hand.

May 13, for example, becomes Unspeak shorthand for race riots and bloodshed; such inter-ethnic violence in our history should not be discussed for fear it would spark further conflict. But May 13, 1969 and the events leading up to the date, were also about a political struggle between various factions in the ruling party for dominance and control over the country. Some of the tensions could be attributed to racial sentiments but these were marginal compared to the political tussles that ensued. To silence discussion and to prevent academic and journalistic excavations of this period in our history is to collude in Unspeak and its political agenda.

As the saying goes, ‘Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.’ As citizens vigilant about our future, it is imperative that we rescue our history—past and present—from the logic of Unspeak, which is far less about truth and much more about political power. “Politics” this day and age is synonymous with profit and power, two sides of the same coin. If we say nothing in the onslaught of Unspeak, we will continue to suffer its ramifications, and no amount of speaking will be able to stem this tide when it finally comes.

This review was first published in Off The Edge, January issue.