Friday, January 20, 2012

Language matters.

I received an email yesterday from a business website that talked up a concept called 'Killing the Puppies.' This is a reference to a business making sure it analyzes processes and projects to make sure they weren't just 'a good idea at the time' or were once effective but are now just pets, for no good reason.

But look at the term - Killing the Puppies.

Why the use of violent imagery? Is it necessary? I can get what concept they're describing, in plain language and don't need a violent metaphor.There's a very nasty overtone also with the envisioned vulnerability of the puppy, and that can encourage a vicarious sense of power, with the strong (in this case - the violent) overcoming the weak. Non violent, or being incapable of effective violence is often portrayed as weak.

Note it doesn't say 'Kill the Great White Shark' because that screws up the imagery. Okay, a shark wouldn't be a pet, but note it doesn't say Kill the Pitbull either. I suspect that is because that would divide the viewer's desired loyalty. The Point of View being rather unsubtly encouraged here is that OF the Pitbull, of the aggressor. Forces of oppression have known for thousands of years that a quick way to get one group to dehumanize another is to encourage them to create a binary opposition, a them and us. If we are unclear about where the dividing point lies, it's harder for propaganda to take hold.  

When I was in the corporate world in the 90's we were bombarded with 'you want to build Guerilla Salespeople' with a 'take no prisoners' approach. So you could 'make the opposition bleed.' I've read business books that spoke of 'Black Ops' projects and 'Special Forces' marketing, 'command and control' brand management. It's the language of the military, and/or the stylized military whose promise of erasing individual insecurities and doubts via the apparatus of massive force that so many find so seductive.  It smacks of the violence porn of many computer games, where the user becomes First Person Shooter.

Where can this kind of violent imagery in (supposedly) non-violent contexts lead? Have a look at this clip of Richard Fuld, reprehensible former head of Lehman Brothers.

This is almost an unintentional parody of the Gordon Gekko character (a ruthless investment banker) in the 1980's movie Wall Street constantly quoting from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. 

Text in all its forms has a large influence on our worldview and the way we form it. Sometimes the way we form our worldview becomes our worldview - street gang culture for example. Richard Fuld is as clear an example of street gang culture as I can conceive.

There is an uncomfortable stereotypical hyper-masculinity in so much of this kind of language, that of dunderheaded comics and films. Kill is more important that grow, black (as in Black Ops style secrecy) is more important than inclusiveness and consultation.

An individual and a society needs to be aware of where it takes language and lets language and its propagators take it.  I have heard, more than once, sports journalists use the term 'rape and pillage' to describe one team defeating another in a contest.Terms (and concepts) can easily become acceptable if downplayed often enough, usually with an accompanying admonition to 'get a sense of humour.'

As a writer and lifelong avid reader I'm well aware of the power of language. It is a tool, and like any tool can be used for constructive or destructive means and ends.  Think about what kinds of terminology you will and won't accept and pass on to others.

Language matters. Really.  

(Dog Whisperers among you will have noted that the second puppy picture is in fact of a pitbull. Confusion of symbolism deliberate.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year

I've been on holiday long enough (and have recovered from the strains of Xmas enough) to start reading more than just whodunits. Came across this wonderful paragraph today on reading and writing (and sentence construction) by an Australian writer, Kevin Brophy, in a book called, The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry, edited by Brenda Walker, Halstead Press, 2007. Worth quoting in full.

"Prose lies on the page before us as the sea lies under a great bird flying from continent to continent. The sentence is no more a distinct unit of language than the wave is distinct from the ocean. Sentences of prose move down the page in lines like the waves of the Pacific moving on to the Australian shoreline. They are a surface phenomenon; they tell us something about what might be happening under the surface; they have their own storms and moods; we read them because that is where we birds moving from the continent of birth to the continent of death must feed off what is swimming just below those waves." (p34)