Bigots are not always bad guys

AlfG2Debate is important.  It doesn’t always lead us to the definitive answer, but it often takes us closer.

Recently, Australia’s Attorney General, Senator George Brandis, suggested – in the Australian Senate – that people should have the right to be bigots.  And many, many people were shocked, horrified, and deeply offended by this.  How could he say such a thing?

According to my dictionary, a bigot is someone who is ‘an obstinate and intolerant believer in a religion, political theory, etc’.  To be bigoted is to be ‘unreasonably prejudiced and intolerant’.  Perhaps not surprisingly, few people consider themselves to be bigots.

Since taking office in 2013, Mr Brandis has devoted himself to reforming the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that forbids people from offending, insulting or humiliating a person or group on the basis of their racial or ethnic origins.  By all accounts, Mr Brandis believes that the Act inhibits free speech.  And Mr Brandis does not think that this is something which the Australian government – or any government, for that matter – should do.

Mr Brandis is not the first person to hold this view.  In varying degrees, John Milton, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many others, have been of a similar mind.

Spinoza was of the opinion that people should be allowed to think what they think and say what they think.  And, if you disagree with what others say, you should have the right to put forward you own view – but not the right to silence those whose opinions you don’t share.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  When adherents of anthropomorphic global warming tell their less-sure opponents – emphatically – that ‘the science is settled’, they are, by definition, being bigots.  They are being obstinate and they are being intolerant of other opinions.  And yet it is the deniers who are generally labelled as bigots.

I have a notebook (it started out on paper, but now it is digital) in which I jot down the (to me) interesting thoughts of others.  One such thought comes from the economist Paul Krugman.

‘If you hear that “everyone” supports a policy,’ he says, ‘whether it’s a war of choice or fiscal austerity, you should ask whether “everyone” has been defined to exclude anyone expressing a different opinion.’

It seems to me that the bigots are not always the bad guys.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Comments Off on Bigots are not always bad guys

Maybe you dunno. But I do.

DunnoA few years ago, we had a chap on our team who was rightly acknowledged to be ‘Educated’.  That’s Educated with a capital E.

Malcolm held degrees from three of the world’s top ten universities.  He was fluent in Latin and Greek.  And he was able to converse effortlessly in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

And yet he never quite managed to come to terms with colloquial English.  His ‘pub speak’ was always more akin to ‘high table speak’.  Not that his friends minded.  Not one bit.  But he did find it difficult when it came to verbatim reporting.

‘I know what he said,’ Malcolm would say, ‘but I’m sure that’s not the way in which he meant to say it.  At least I hope that’s not the way in which he meant to say it.’

I remember an occasion on which we were asked to prepare an executive summary of a qualitative study into the likes and dislikes of people using a particular credit management service.  One of the objectives of the study was to help the service’s managers to understand what their customers really thought about their service.  Or at least what they really said to others about the service.  And, partly for this reason, the report was to include a selection of telling verbatim comments.

For a couple of days, Malcolm toiled away and, at the end of it, turned in 3,000 or so words of immaculate prose.  Unfortunately, not only had he edited the stutters and stumbles from the verbatim comments, he had recast each and every one in language that would have made the most pernickety Oxford don proud.  He was crestfallen when we suggested restoring the original comments.

Malcom died almost four years ago.  But I was reminded of him, just the other day, when I was reading a critical assessment.  The author, a chap who clearly understood the need to speak to his audience in language they understood, was doing an excellent job of avoiding passive academic constructions.  And then he blew it.

He had just reported another critic’s (slightly controversial) opinion.  And, in the very next sentence, he said: ‘I dunno about you […].’  And I stopped reading.


It is not necessary to say ‘do not know’.  ‘Don’t know’ is fine.  But ‘dunno’?  In serious writing?  That’s just asking for trouble.  I’m pleased that Malcolm didn’t have to read it.

Posted in Better communication, Plain English | Comments Off on Maybe you dunno. But I do.

Time to bring back the sub-editors?

Mega2Has the tone of the dissenting voice in public discussion become less civilised, potentially more damaging?  Or has it just become easier to ‘hear’ the more extreme voices?

Has online comment and the Twitterverse simply brought the conversation that previously took place in a pub (perhaps a pub which most of us never visited) directly to our ever-accessible screens?

Recently, Deborah Hill Cone, a columnist for The New Zealand Herald, wrote what I thought was a pretty fair ‘starter for ten’ on the part that ageing, shallow celebritydom, and cyber bullying may have played in the death of Charlotte Dawson (of whom, I must confess, I had never heard).  Within minutes, Ms Hill Cone had people not so much disagreeing with her as damning her and wishing her horrible harm.

A few days later, Ms Hill Cone wrote a sort of explanation – although I’m not sure that one was required.  And, again, she was the target of much ill-tempered vitriol and damnation.

When things like this happen, it is tempting to think that there ought to be ‘rules’, laws even.  Surely, people shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinions in nasty, hurtful language.  As the apocryphal grandmother said: If you can’t say it nicely, don’t say it at all.

But where do you draw the line?  What is hurtful to one person may simply be ‘honest opinion’ or ‘robust comment’ to another.  Also, in my experience at least, there are many, many people who are simply incapable of putting their thoughts into anything resembling coherent language.  For many of these people, the only way to say ‘I disagree with your point of view’ is to say: ‘Fuck you, shitface.  May you and all of your children die a horrible death.’

So, what’s the answer?  Well, there was a time when published comments and opinions – letters to the editor, for example – were subject to intervention.  Sub-editors applied their considerable skills to turning sows’ ears into something more akin to silk purses.  But the principle that the internet is free does not allow for the costs associated with professional sub-editing.  What gets submitted tends to get posted.

However, here’s a thought: maybe it’s time to bring back the sub-editors.  Maybe we would all be better off if, when posting a comment, the poster paid a small fee.  Maybe a dollar.  Or two dollars.  This would not be an arbitrary revenue-gathering toll, but a contribution to the cost of sub-editing in the interests of a better ‘finished product’.  It’s just a thought.  But if you have a better one, I’m listening.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Comments Off on Time to bring back the sub-editors?

Well written gets well read

Piano2Recently, I overheard a captain of industry complaining that a high proportion of the calls to his overworked call centre should not have been necessary.  ‘If customers just read the stuff we send them, they’d already know what they need to know.’  Really?

Given the right piece of prose, I just might be the world’s slowest reader.

With the right piece of prose, I often find myself savouring each word, each sentence – even savouring the spaces between the sentences.  And sometimes, after perhaps just 15 or 20 pages of quality writing, I find that my appetite is sated – for the moment, anyway.  But I do know exactly what I have read.  I do understand what the writer is saying.

Recently, it took me the best part of a week to read a novella – probably no more that about 18,000 words – such was the quality of the prose.  And it was not the first time that I had read that particular novella.  Over the past 20 years, I have probably read it seven or eight times.  And I am pretty sure that I will read it again.

And then there is the average email or other written communication that I receive from my local council or utility or other service provider.

These tend to take between six and eight seconds to ‘read’: a couple of seconds to read the opening sentence (blah); a couple of seconds to see if the gibberish has become any clearer by the midpoint (not often); and a quick peruse of the last sentence or two to see if I can discern any need for further action (and it is rare that I can).

Here’s a tip for all you captains of industry: if you want your customers (and would-be customers) to read your missives, get the very best writers that you can find to write them for you.  Not the best salespeople you can find.  Not the best sandwich makers you can find.  The best writers.

That way, your intended readers will probably read your missives carefully and attentively.  And it will save your organisation thousands of dollars, and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Simple really.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity, Plain English | Comments Off on Well written gets well read

Change. But not always for the better.

papilio UlyssesThe meanings of words change with time.  It has always been thus.  And to fight it makes little sense.  But to recognise it, and to appreciate the implications, well, that is another matter.

A few years ago, the most common meaning of anticipate was ‘to expect something to happen and take steps, in advance, to mitigate its impact’.  An astute general anticipated an attack on the left flank and deployed forces to repel the attackers.

But, these days, anticipate is more often used in place of ‘expect’ or ‘await’.  A breathless TV reporter tells us that some entertainer is about to embark on a ‘much-anticipated tour’.  No troops are deployed to repel him (or her).  Although sometimes that should be an option.

Unique used to mean ‘something of which there was only one’.  But these days it can often be used to mean ‘slightly remarkable’.  And whereas once there was no such thing as ‘a little bit unique’ – an object or event was either unique or it was not – these days we encounter objects and events that are a little bit unique on an almost daily basis.

When I was a child, an epidemic was ‘a widespread occurrence of a disease in a particular community at a particular time’.  I can recall polio epidemics and influenza epidemics.  Neither was pleasant.

But then propagandists who wanted to invest certain non-disease conditions (of which they did not approve) with a similar gravity started using epidemic in a metaphoric sense.  Suddenly we had ‘an epidemic of obesity’, even though obesity was not – and is not – an actual disease.

The difference between the change in the use of anticipate and the change in the use of epidemic is subtle yet profound.  In the case of anticipate, the users were just a bit lazy.  Sloppy, perhaps.  But they meant no harm.

However, in the case of epidemic, the users knew exactly what they were doing.  They were trying to mislead us.  They wanted us to believe that obesity was on a par with polio and diphtheria.  They wanted us to panic – and then do whatever they told us to do in order to save our skins.

Whenever you find yourself presented with the findings and recommendations of some fanatical ‘body of betters’, it’s a good idea to pay attention to each and every word.  The chances that much of it will be carefully-contrived obfuscation are extremely high.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Comments Off on Change. But not always for the better.

Use words I recognise

SODKurt Vonnegut Jr used to tell his Creative Writing students:  Use words that I will recognise.  (Actually, as an American, he probably spelled it ‘recognize’; but you know what I mean.)

There was a professor on the radio this morning talking about sleep.  She said that people catastrophize about not getting enough.  I didn’t hear what she said after that.  I was distracted, thinking about all of the poor people who were catastrophizing about not getting enough sleep.  It sounded awful.

And, the more I thought about all of these poor people catastrophizing, the more I worried that I might not even be spelling this unfamiliar word correctly.  So I tried to look up catastrophizing in a couple of dictionaries.  In both cases, catastrophe was there.  And so too was catastrophic.  But there was no mention of catastrophize.  So I searched on the Internet.

If the Internet is to be believed (and that’s not always the case), it seems that catastrophize is a term that psychologists use.  I guess the professor forgot that she was talking to a bunch of non-psychologists.

It reminded me of one of the late Elmore Leonard’s ‘rules’ of writing: Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.

As Mr Leonard pointed out: ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.  But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’  Mr Leonard said that he ‘once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.’

Mr Leonard didn’t say whether or not he got back to Ms McCarthy.  But, by the time I had looked up catastrophize and got back to the radio, the professor had gone.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity, Plain English | Comments Off on Use words I recognise

Those lazy days of summer

SummerSunGavin Ellis, astute media commentator and former Editor-in-Chief of The New Zealand Herald, suggested the other day that ‘list’ articles are just lazy journalism.  I agree.  But I’m feeling a bit lazy, so here is a list of five things that irk me about newspapers on these sunny days when reporting real news seems to require too much effort.

One: Misleading headlines.  Newspaper headlines are famous for their colourful use of the lexicon.  ‘Tot’s tragic tumble while mum romps with boyfriend’.  Suitably sensational; and possibly vaguely connected to the not-quite-so-sensational story that follows.

But what about: ‘Pedestrians at risk from imminent collapse of landmark’?  Read on, and you discover that a) there were no pedestrians within a country mile, b) the building was hardly a landmark, and c) it was never in any danger of collapsing.  It seems that the whole story was based on the mutterings of a ‘sickness beneficiary’ who ‘hears voices’.  ‘No one from the Council was available for comment.’

Two: Tenuous connections.  ‘NZ-registered plane’s landing gear fails’.  Yes it was a New Zealand registered plane –a freight plane; so, unfortunately, no passengers – but it was operated by an Australian company in the Solomon Islands.  And nobody was even slightly injured.  In fact, nothing much happened at all.  Damn.  But, hey, at least it was a NZ-registered plane.  That must count for something.  Surely.

Three: Tenuous celebrity links.  If the person in the story is someone no one has ever heard of, link them to somebody famous.  Well, anybody really.  ‘All Black’s cousin hurt in freak accident’.  Except the ‘cousin’ turns out to be a third cousin many times removed.  And the All Black was someone no one remembers who played just one non-test midweek match back in the 1930s.

Four: The lone dissenting voice of little consequence.  Even during the silly season, there is some news that might count as news.  But the first reaction of whoever is minding the switch seems to be to find a contrary view.  Any contrary view.  ‘School plans deeply flawed’.  Says who?  A chap, unknown even to his own mother; but willing, for the thrill of seeing his name in print, to disagree with anyone and everyone on just about everything.

And … five: yes, lists.  ‘Ten things you didn’t know about cheese.’  Except a quick read reveals that nine of the things I did know.  And the tenth is not actually about cheese.  It is about brawn, also known as ‘head cheese’, made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig, and usually set in aspic.  Not a milk solid in sight.

Oh well … the cricket season’s almost over.  Autumn can’t be far away.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Comments Off on Those lazy days of summer

Think clearly, write clearly.

Pen2There was a time when newspaper readers who wanted to comment on a particular news item or opinion piece would sit down and pen a Letter to the Editor.  The editor – or more often a sub-editor – would then select some of the letters for publication in the journal.  Occasionally, a letter might make the following day’s edition; but, more often than not, it appeared two or three days later.

I am reliably informed by a chap whose sub-editing duties at one stage included preparing the letters for publication that most were, to some extent, edited.  ‘Ramblers’ were condensed; spelling was tidied; grammar and punctuation were often tweaked to conform to prevailing conventions.  As a result, while the content of individual letters might have sometimes been mad, bad, or sad, the reader could contemplate the content without having to fight her way through a forest of random tos, toos, and twos, theirs, theres, and they’res, and allusions and illusions.

Then, along came online publications and the ability of readers to post their comments directly, without having to go through an editing process.

Within minutes or hours (rather than days), a published news item or opinion piece can now attract 20 or 30 or 100 ‘reader’s comments’.  And each comment can sometimes attract four or five or ten comments on the comment.

Earlier today, I read a thoughtful opinion piece on the problems facing the higher education sector.  I then spent about ten minutes reading some of the many reader’s comments that it had attracted.  And not one of the comments was without several basic written English errors.  Not one of these people who had all the answers to the problems facing the higher education sector could write a simple, readable paragraph.

Of course, some people would say: Does it really matter?  You could still work out what it was that they were trying to say.  It’s the thought that counts, not the way it’s written.

Well, no.  If you have something to say, you need to say it in clear, concise language.  Because if you can’t write clearly, it suggests to me that you can’t think clearly.  And why would I care about the opinion of someone who is incapable of thinking clearly?

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Comments Off on Think clearly, write clearly.

Hooray for our side. Bugger the others.

microphoneMy mother – who is old and, therefore, can sometimes pass as wise – reckons that the first TV programme I ever saw was Andy Pandy.  Or, possibly, Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men.  She may be right.  I don’t remember.

What I do remember is watching a game of cricket.  It was a test match.  I think it was England playing South Africa.  But it may have been England playing Australia.  Either way, the picture was in soft shades of grey.

I was about four or five at the time.  I knew a bit about cricket because my father played club cricket and my mother would often take my sister and me to watch him bowling slow leg breaks and batting in the middle order.

The best part about watching cricket on TV was not the picture (let’s face it, the pictures back in those days were not very good).  No, what made watching cricket interesting and entertaining was the commentary: two or three witty and informative chaps chatting about cricket and life in general and, occasionally, commenting on the game that was in progress.  Almost without exception, they were worthy of the appellative wordsmith.

Funnily enough, as I grew up, I watched very little cricket on TV.  Instead, I watched it at the park or I listened to it on the radio.  At the park it was in colour; on the radio it was in Technicolor.

Cricket is one of the few games that I can think of that you can ‘picture’ without needing to see it.  There is an off side and an on side (also known as the leg side).  There are 25 or 30 clearly defined fielding positions – from deep fine leg via deep backward square and deep mid-wicket to long on; and from long off all the way around to point, third man, and various gullies and slips until you get to the wicket keeper.

And pretty much every batting stroke has its own name.  When the commentator announces a cover drive or a square cut (or, heaven forbid, a French cut), you know that it is definitely not a hoick to cow corner.

One of the things that I took for granted as I listened to the chaps in the ‘combox’ was that they did their best to be neutral.  They may have been from England or from India or from South Africa, but it was clear that they wanted cricket to be the winner.  Credit fell where credit was due, but the real winner was always the game itself.

And then one day, when I was temporarily distracted, one of the Australian TV channels apparently decided that it would pull in bigger audiences if they replaced neutral commentators with out and out Aussie cheerleaders.

To his credit, former Australian cricket captain Mark ‘Tubby’ Taylor has declined to join in the game of ‘hooray for our side and bugger the others’.  But, as for the rest of them, I now prefer to watch with the sound off.

In my view, the loser in all of this is not the team that comes second, but the game itself.

Posted in Better communication, Clarity | Leave a comment