What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

Remember: all pictures can be expanded to full page size by clicking on them.


27 February 2012

Cliché watch #1: an environmentalist writes…

The clearest indicator of inadequacy in writers, or the desire to deceive, is the use of clichés. Cliché is a tool,  like the magician’s enormous handkerchief, which is used to mask real thought. It is deployed in an attempt to persuade by invoking a sort of “group think” which appeals to the sheep in society (быдло, as Russians say). This technique was explored to its limit in the Soviet Union under its senior tutor, Joseph Stalin. Though he used violence as well, the method worked almost as well under his successors when violence was largely abandoned—such is the corrosive effect on the collective mind of unrelenting cliché.
     Russians have an advantage over the English-speaking world in that they have direct experience of the power of large-scale lying, and are able to see, unlike most of us, that the modern art of using clichés as a mask for thought is a pale but nonetheless insidious version of that process.
     In the politically correct West, the environmental movement is the biggest purveyor of deceiving clichés outside mainstream politics—where lies are arguably unavoidable. Much of the humour of people like Rory Bremner and publications like Private Eye is political and usually involves de-constructing polticians’ clichés.
     A good example of an environmentalist using cliché to stimulate fear in order to increase his influence over the minds of non-experts occurs in today’s Guardian. It carries an article by Bill McGuire, who is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College, London, entitled, “Climate change will shake the earth”. Professor McGuire writes: (I have put the clichés in italics)
“The world we inhabit has an outer rind that is extraordinarily sensitive to change. While the Earth’s crust may seem safe and secure, the geological calamities that happen with alarming regularity confirm that this is not the case. Here in the UK, we only have to go back a couple years to April 2010, when the word on everyone’s lips was Eyjafjallajökull – the ice-covered Icelandic volcano that brought UK and European air traffic to a grinding halt. Less than a year ago, our planet’s ability to shock and awe headed the news once again as the east coast of Japan was bludgeoned by a cataclysmic combination of megaquake and tsunami, resulting – at a quarter of a trillion dollars or so – in the biggest natural-catastrophe bill ever.”
Taking the clichés one at a time:
     “The world we inhabit” – Professor McGuire means “the earth” but puts it in this way to invoke cosy, English visions of a place of human habitation, when in fact he is making a point about science. The fact that the earth is inhabited is irrelevant to the physical process he is describing.
     “Extraordinarily sensitive to change” – he means “vulnerable” but uses the words he does in order to invoke the fear of change that I presume he thinks—if so, rightly in my view—the Guardian-reading public will respond to. It also enables him to get in the word “sensitive”, which has obvious benefits in this context.
     “Safe and secure” – this is another invocation of the English suburban cliché about  life in a Safety First society. A more popular view amongst Russians, I suspect, would be that it is an over-regulated one which wants to shackle the rest of the world with its own self-imposed limitations.
     “Alarming regularity” – once again the use of a word that suggests fear, when in a scientific context the author could just as well have said “regulalry”.
     “The word on everyone’s lips” – this is just cliché for the sake of cliché. It does not tickle any “environmental conscience centres” in the brain—to use a cliché myself. It is gratuitous waffle—there: another cliché. Professor McGuire could have left this out altogether.
     “Grinding halt” – this is a misuse of the phrase—perfectly legitimate in the context—“grinding to a halt”. Halts are not “grinding”; it is the process of arriving at them that is.
     “Shock and awe” – this is a phrase used by the American armed forces in connection with the invasion of Iraq, and is well-known in that context. It is wholly inappropriate here since it implies deliberate, punitive action when, as everyone knows, “the planet” does not have a mind of its own. Only extreme Protestants think of insensate matter as being able to punish people in the way this phrase suggests. But environmentalism, it should never be forgotten, has many uncomfortable parallels with Calvinism.
     “Bludgeoned” – this is word is wrongly used. To bludgeon something is to use a blunt instrument. However disastrous the tsunami and earthquake were, it seems to me to be cheap to use words thoughtlessly in connection with a tragedy in which so many people died.
     “Cataclysmic combination of megaquake and tsunami” – this is the cliché of exaggeration, and is cheap too.
     “The biggest natural catastrophe bill ever” – this could, in different circumstances, have been taken as a joke since loss of money is not so important in most people's minds as loss of life. But environmentalists—especially those who favour population reduction in the interests of  “nature”—rarely take the human element into account in their attempts to balance the interests of people and their beloved environment. Not only that, they do not joke. They are too Biblical for that. Nonetheless, the critic might want some comparisons: how expensive was the Pompei
     The Biblical point is important in that one of the ways environmentalists try to hoodwink the public is by implicitly claiming prophetic authority. That is why they avoid jokes. Either that, or because it takes a person without any sense of humour to think of their own pronouncements in Biblical terms.
     At any event, I have always liked Robert Graves’s point that in the Bible there is not a smile from Genesis to Apocalypse. Graves was on my mind the other day when I read about a party held in London sometime in the 1960s to celebrate the opening night of a play based on his novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Graves had recently published a “biography” of Christ and was considered to be an authority in the field of Biblical scholarship, as he was in the classics generally. During a lull in the conversation, he turned to the prominent Scottish politician who was sitting next to him and said loudly enough that everyone could hear, “Of course, Jesus Christ lived to the age of eighty, went to China and discovered spaghetti.”

No comments:

Post a Comment