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02 May 2012

Master class #2: Marilyn Murray/Moscow Times

Image management, 1930s-style
One of the great mysteries of this year surrounds the series of long articles by an “educator” called Marilyn Murray which is being run in the Moscow Times. For such a good paper to carry such light-weight psychobabble so often suggests to some observers that the concept of “krysha” is not limited to the world of the Russian mafia.
     Since Ms Murray’s basic theme is that Russians need to learn from her how to think and behave, she will not complain if I take a few moments to explain how she, herself, needs to learn how to think and write. Her article in today’s paper is all about image. The essential message of this blog is that image in print involves writing English fluently and clearly, which Ms Murray does not seem able to do. It might help many Russians to know that they are not alone in having difficulty with written English, an excusable defect in a non-native-speaker, but less so in an “educator” whose родной язык is English and who says her favourite book is the Bible (which is very well written in English). Starting at the beginning:

        “Image management is a phenomenon practised worldwide, but it has been polished to perfection in Russia.” Why “phenomenon”? Why not: “Image management is practiced worldwide”? And how can you “polish” a “phenomenon”? You can polish an image, but not a phenomenon. And since she says later on in her article that Russia manages its international image badly, the word “perfection” is either misused (if applied to the country) or wrongly applied (if she means to say Russian people are perfect at managing their image). She would have been better to have written: “Image management is popular in Russia.”

        An example of “image management” in her opening paragraph is “the unbelievably high spike heels that are part of the standard uniform of so many young, modern Russian women.” All “uniforms” are “standard”, by definition. There is no need to use both words. And something “standard” cannot be worn by “so many”, since it is not “all”, or nearly all, and therefore means that it is common rather than almost ubiquitous, which is what it ought to be if it is to be described as “standard”. What she might have said is “…the heels which are so often worn by young, modern Russian women.”

        “I have studied and observed the various causations of image management over the years”. Why “studied and observed”, rather than just “studied”, or “observed”? What extra sense does Ms Murray intend to convey by using the two words rather than just one. Instead of “causation”, she might have said “reasons for”. “Causation” is not a common word and is generally used today to mean the act of causing, which it is clear from the context is not what she intended to say. In any case, the phrase is redundant. Any study of the field will include a study of the reasons for its existence. A fair copy might have been: “For many years, I have studied image management…”

        We then get a few statements of the obvious, never a sign of deep thought. First she says that the most common reason for image management is “to enhance self-esteem”. Well, who’d’ve thought it! Then Ms Murray says, “the primal need for safety is the most important requisite for survival”. This means that to survive you need to be safe, which is not a point that most Moscow Times readers would need to have explained to them. Then, just in case you are still awake, the educator shares with us this observation: “Marine life, birds and animals that are capable of melting invisibly into their environment are masters at image management.” OMG! This sentence has so many problems they deserve another paragraph.

        First, “marine life” is singular, not plural, and therefore should be separated from the plural words, “birds” and “animals”, when sharing a common (plural) verb (“are”). Creatures can “melt into their environment” and thereby become “invisible”, but they cannot melt “invisibly”. Melting is, at least at first, a visible process; evaporating perhaps, which turns a liquid into a gas, but not melting which turns a solid into a liquid. Not even water is totally invisible. And these creatures are not “masters at image management” for two reasons. First, to be a “master” implies a skill, not an instinctive reaction. I am not a “master” at breathing in my sleep; I do that automatically. No “marine life” sits in its “environment” and devotes time and thought to improving its “invisible melting” skills! Secondly, “image management” and camouflaging oneself are two different processes. One is designed to make you less visible; the other to make you more visible, in a controlled way. This is a completely inept turn of phrase. Ms Murray would be better to have written: “Many sea creatures, birds and animals have developed remarkable abilities at camouflage.” But, as I said in the previous paragraph, I think most people know that. Better to have omitted the sentence altogether.

        There are also some highly questionable points which are stated as fact. Like: “Russian culture is known for its black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking.” Is that so? Who, where, when? It is true that many Russians think like that, but so do many Calvinists and other readers of the Old Testament—though not all, of course. In what sense is intellectual apartheid a peculiarly Russian phenomenon?

        Next, she says, “As a result, some leaders have habitually maintained that to admit any defect or weakness would create a vulnerability that would expose the country to invasion.” Historically, this is complete tosh. Is she aware of how often Peter the Great expatiated on Russia’s vulnerabilities and inadequacies? And Catherine the Great? And Alexander II, and Lenin? Has she ever read Stalin’s famous speech—quoted in most serious biographies—to the First Conference of Industrial Managers in 1931 in the course of which he dwelled at length on Russian’s historical backwardness and ended by saying: “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced industrial countries. Either we make good this gap in ten years or they will crush us”? He was admitting weaknesses in order to try to prevent invasion. And what about Khrushchev’s secret speech about the evils of Stalinism at the twentieth Party Conference in 1956? That was “admitting defects” by any standard. And what about Gorbachev? I could go on. Where does Ms Murray get this silly idea from?

     At that point, a long way from the end, with many more juicy grammatical faux pas to point out, I got bored with all the empty-headed prattle and gave up. Russians would be right to be annoyed at a person who says, as Ms Murray does, about their country: “Unless an unhealthy system acknowledges its defects and weaknesses and seeks to correct them and learn from them, it will continue on a toxic path until the decay becomes so intense that it destroys itself.”
     What conceit! Especially from a person who does not seem to know the history she is basing her generalisations on, nor appears to realise either that decay cannot become “intense” (as pain, for example, can), or that it cannot “destroy itself”. Decay may destroy the organism in which it occurs. But decay cannot destroy decay.
     I think Ms Murray needs to enrol for a few semesters at the Vladimir Putin Charm School: P.O. Box Kremlin, Moscow, where they will teacher her a thing or two about image management for people with defects, weaknesses and a message to impart to humanity. In her spare time, I could also recommend a course at the Ian Mitchell School of Sentence Construction and Correct Word Use: P.O. Box, Khimki. But to be eligible, she would need to accept that she is a victim of SDS, or Syntactical Decay Syndrome. I therefore do not expect to see this “educator” on my doorstep anytime soon.

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