Friday, October 02, 2015

When language obscures the message

I am beginning to find the regular use of extreme language about debates to be something which clouds rather than helps understanding.

If you see an account of a debate or conversation on twitter, there is a very good chance that the person who posted it will describe the person he or she agree with as having "destroyed" the other side of the debate, or say that they "own" them.

E.g. suppose a UKIP supporter is posting a section from the Farage/Clegg EU debate which he or she thinks the UKIP leader did particularly well in, the post is likely to be called something like
"Brilliant UKIP leader owns pro-EU minister.

For the avoidance of doubt, I would not wish to infer that the Kippers are the only culprits: I have seen posts where SNP supporters. Labour members, anti-globalisation protestors, and yes, Tories have done the same sort of thing.

The rot is spreading and the practice is even appearing on the websites of supposedly quality newspapers: for example the Independent News had links today to a report of Jeremy Corbyn's speech to Labour conference. The links read "Jeremy Corbyn destroys right-wing media."

The title of the article is nearly as one-sided, it suggests that the Labour leader "takes down right-wing media reports."

But did he? The first story Jeremy Corbyn ridiculed was the allegation that he had "welcomed the prospect of an asteroid wiping out humanity."

Now, if Corbyn had responded by saying "that was a joke" I would have been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The thing is, the press didn't just make that story up. Corbyn actually was one of three MPs, along with the late Tony Banks and the inevitable John McDonnell, who in May 2004 signed House of Commons early day motion 1255, which reads as follows:

"That this House is appalled, but barely surprised, at the revelations in M15 files regarding the bizarre and inhumane proposals to use pigeons as flying bombs; recognises the important and live-saving role of carrier pigeons in two world wars and wonders at the lack of gratitude towards these gentle creatures; and believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again."
Did Corbyn destroy the media? No, he just laughed at them. Which is not the same as proving them wrong, let alone "destroying" or "owning" them.

I will be quoting tomorrow a link to an excellent Nick Cohen article on freedom of thought and against political correctness in which he points out that one of the problems with political correctness is an obsession with language and being to ready to ascribe all sorts of evils to someone because of a minor problem with how they express themselves.

That's a good point, so on the same basis I don't want to go overboard with this, and am not suggesting that everyone who describes a speaker they approve of as having "owned" or "destroyed" a speaker from the other side is an extremist or bigot.

But I do want to suggest that this sort of language is a bit arrogant, rather tiresome, and usually rather an exaggeration. And as such it interferes with rather than helping the communication of a clear message.

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