Sunday, April 17, 2016

The curse of the misleading headline and our readiness to assume people are being insulted

Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard, has an interesting article in today's Sunday Times which has an unusual distinction - I think it has set a record for the number of different conclusions jumped to by different headline writers and readers about who, if anyone, he is insulting.

Ferguson begins by quoting the poem, which as he says is sometimes attributed to Dorothy Parker (though there is no evidence that she actually wrote it)

“See the happy moron;
He doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron;
My God! Perhaps I am.”

At no point in the article does he directly call anyone else a moron, but at the very end, exactly as in the poem, he refers, perhaps ironically, to the possibility that he might be one himself.

At first Ferguson appears to be accusing the International Monetary Fund of being morons since he writes that he is often reminded of the above poem when reading IMF reports, which "almost without fail" admit that their previous forecasts were over-optimistic and had to be revised down. But then he dispels the impression that he meant such an insult by saying that, to be fair to them, the IMF do give a damn.

The headline on the print edition seem to suggests that the supporters of Leave have been calling remain supporters such as Niall Ferguson happy morons: it reads

"Call us Project Fear or happy morons, but all the numbers are on our side.

However, the headline on the online edition accuses "Leave" of being morons who don't care whether they get their facts right: it begins

"Brexit's happy morons don't give a damn"

Offense was duly taken by Leave, for example by Ruth Lea who describes this as "cheap insults" and "pathetic."

Reading the body of the article, however, I don't get the impression that Niall Ferguson is actually saying that leave supporters are morons. The leave argument of which Ferguson is most critical, that presented in "Why Vote Leave" by Dan Hannan MEP is not accused of presenting a moronic argument so much as "pulling a fast one" by failing to make clear whether Hannan is arguing for one of the options in which Britain would be inside the EU Single Market or one in which we would be outside, and of pretending that we could have the advantages of the former without the disadvantages.

Towards the end of the article Ferguson appears to demonstrate that the purpose of quoting the poem was actually to repeat the self-mocking line at the end, saying

"Perhaps, as the old poem says, I am the one who is the moron."

I think the lesson here, and the point of this post, is that in the increasingly tense atmosphere of this referendum, anything which can be taken as insulting somebody will be so interpreted.

No comments: