Word Bleg II: Eclectic Boogaloo - Macleans.ca
 

Word Bleg II: Eclectic Boogaloo


 

Gimme a break, it’s Friday. Anyway, my friend Chris Macdonald wants your input on the following:

What words reliably signal that an author is not offering a neutral analysis or assessment of an issue? The first such word that comes to my mind is “agenda.” If you refer to one side’s view as an “agenda”, you’re almost certainly an ideologue.  There are lots of merely loaded terms & dysphemisms, of course, but the ones I’m interested in are ones that can be used by nearly anyone (i.e., words that aren’t intrinsically right-wing or left-wing, etc.).

I can think of a few obvious ones, like referring to someone’s plan as a “scheme”. But the trick here is to go beyond obviously loaded language and find terms that appear neutral, but frame the analysis in a way the subtly pushes you in a certain direction.

Is this the same exercise as last time?


 
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Word Bleg II: Eclectic Boogaloo

  1. strategy

  2. Whatever the term is if it gets into common use it will become loaded too.

  3. using "regime" to describe a government (eg the Obama regime, the Bush regime)

  4. Compiling a list of words whose mere presence would allow us to disqualify views is in and of itself a reliable signal that someone is not interested in offering a neutral analysis or assessment of an issue.

    "Agenda" and "strategy" may well be misused at times but some people really do have agendas that they seek to introduce incrementally without admitting that is what they are doing.

  5. Compiling a list of words whose mere presence would allow us to disqualify views is in and of itself a reliable signal that someone is not interested in offering a neutral analysis or assessment of an issue.

    "Agenda" and "strategy" may well be misused at times but some people really do have agendas that they seek to introduce incrementally without admitting that is what they are doing. And it is perfectly legitimate for people to suggest this of their opponents.

  6. Compiling a list of words whose mere presence would allow us to disqualify views we don't like is in and of itself a reliable signal that someone is not interested in offering a neutral analysis or assessment of an issue.

    "Agenda" and "strategy" may well be misused at times but some people really do have agendas that they seek to introduce incrementally without admitting that is what they are doing. And it is perfectly legitimate for people to suggest this of their opponents.

    • How so? How can wanting to understand rhetoric a rejection of neutral analysis?

      I'm looking for words that are red flags, caution signs that people (e.g., my students) can look for that may indicate someone has an axe to grind. It's a critical thinking exercise. All of us can stand to be a bit more aware of language usage.

      • Language just doesn't operate like that. Individual words, by virtue of their presence alone, don't signal anything reliably. If the exercise is for people to be more aware of language usage, the only remedy is to be exposed to as much language use as possible. A course in logic is also useful.

      • One quick further thought, here is a sentence from your request:

        "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

        If you are going to red flag people who use "agenda" wouldn't you have to be equally suspicious of people who use "ideologue". It's a rhetorical strategy that tends to frame the debate isn't it?

      • One quick further thought, here is a sentence from your request:

        "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

        If we are going to red flag people who use "agenda" wouldn't we have to be equally suspicious of people who use "ideologue". It's a rhetorical strategy that tends to frame the debate isn't it?

        • Yes. I'm using "ideologue" in a pejorative sense. Feel free to be suspicious…at least if you're in favour of ideological argumentation. I think it's worth noticing when people are arguing ideologically — not that there's even necessarily anything wrong with cleaving to an ideology; it's just that arguing from that basis is a certain kind of project.

          • You're being a little disingenuous here. If "agenda" tells us that someone is not being neutral, it does so because we imagine they are using the word "agenda" as a rhetorical trick to colour our overall impression of the views they are attacking. You are doing the same with "ideologue". You are in a simple blanket statement saying, anyone who uses agenda this way is an ideologue colouring our impression by this rhetorical device without a single scrap of evidence to back it up.

      • Okay, but doesn't critical thinking imply, you know, actual analysis and work? So, for example, if we see the word "agenda" we might ask ourselves what evidence does this author advance that the person they are criticizing has a larger agenda beyond what is on the table and do they offer credible evidence that this particular thing is really an incremental step in a larger agenda the person they are criticizing is perhaps concealing?

        Now perhaps I am missing the point, but you seem to be suggesting that certain words by their mere presence suggests that person using them is to be treated with suspicion. Isn't it sometimes the case that people do have a larger agenda. That doesn't strike me as critical thinking so much as it's opposite. But maybe I have misunderstood you?

        • You're not missing anything. I think this exercise is a simple-minded approach to something that is much too complex to be handled so mechanistically.

          • Just to be clear, I'm not advocating an "approach." I'm not suggesting anything mechanistic: I'm not looking to disqualify anyone's comments using a keyword search or anything. I'm just curious about words that seem to have this odd property.

          • OMG he's using the word APPROACH! HE MUST BE LYING!!!

        • It seems that just when you are on the verge of getting the point, you miss the point. He is not suggesting that certain words should cause you regard their user with suspicion. He is asking for words that signal the need for closer attention to be paid.
          Words like 'the' and 'and' wouldn't usually come into play here because meaning-wise, they're not all that rich. A word like 'agenda,' on the other hand, has more stuff going on, or potentially going on, so you pay closer attention when you see it. Is it being used as a humble descriptor for the basic outline of a meeting, or is it being used to describe something more grandiose, or perhaps sinister? This is the point at which the reader must engage their critical faculties and begin doing the work of analyzing the context in which the word is used in order to evaluate its use. It would probably still be a little on the early side to draw any serious conclusions about the person using the word.

          • "It would probably still be a little on the early side to draw any serious conclusions about the person using the word."

            The problem is that he is reaching conclusions about the person and reaching them very quickly. Note again what he wrote: "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

            I think you have framed what Chris MacDonald is doing here in the most charitable way possible and that is a useful thing to do. The question now is, however, is there anything left here that isn't merely a trivial point. Let me take it as you say and analyze. Is the project just that this is the point at which the reader must engage their critical faculties? Okay, let's do that.

            X has said that Y, although seeming to propose isolated and independent measures, is actually engaged in pursuing a larger agenda. Okay, that's a factual claim. Does X advance plausible reasons to back up this claim? And on we go doing normal critical analysis. But here is the question" Is there any reason at all to treat this factual claim, that Y has an agenda, any different from any other factual claim made in a rhetorical argument? If not, MacDonald's whole argument is trivial and must be disregarded. And I think it is either trivial or, as the quote from above suggests, just a new twist on ad hominem.

          • "It would probably still be a little on the early side to draw any serious conclusions about the person using the word."

            The problem is that he is reaching conclusions about the person and reaching them very quickly. Note again what he wrote: "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

            I think you have framed what Chris MacDonald is doing here in the most charitable way possible and that is a useful thing to do. The question now is, however, is there anything left here that isn't merely a trivial point. Let me take it as you say and analyze. Is the project just that this is the point at which the reader must engage their critical faculties? Okay, let's do that.

            X has said that Y, although seeming to propose isolated and independent measures, is actually engaged in pursuing a larger agenda. Okay, that's a factual claim. Does X advance plausible reasons to back up this claim? And on we go doing normal critical analysis. But here is the question" Is there any reason at all to treat this factual claim, that Y has an agenda, any different from any other factual claim made in a rhetorical argument? If not, MacDonald's whole pursuit here is trivial and must be disregarded. And I think it is either trivial or, as the quote from above suggests, just a new twist on ad hominem.

          • "It would probably still be a little on the early side to draw any serious conclusions about the person using the word."

            The problem is that he is reaching conclusions about the person and reaching them very quickly. Note again what he wrote: "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

            I think you have framed what Chris MacDonald is doing here in the most charitable way possible and that is a useful thing to do. The question now, however, is there anything left here that isn't merely a trivial point. Let me take it as you say and analyze. Is the project just that this is the point at which the reader must engage their critical faculties? Okay, let's do that.

            X has said that Y, although seeming to propose isolated and independent measures, is actually engaged in pursuing a larger agenda. Okay, that's a factual claim. Does X advance plausible reasons to back up this claim? And on we go doing normal critical analysis. But here is the question" Is there any reason at all to treat this factual claim, that Y has an agenda, any different from any other factual claim made in a rhetorical argument? If not, MacDonald's whole pursuit here is trivial and must be disregarded. And I think it is either trivial or, as the quote from above suggests, just a new twist on ad hominem.

          • "It would probably still be a little on the early side to draw any serious conclusions about the person using the word."

            The problem is that he is reaching conclusions about the person and reaching them very quickly. Note again what he wrote: "If you refer to one side's view as an “agenda”, you're almost certainly an ideologue."

            I think you have framed what Chris MacDonald is doing here in the most charitable way possible and that is a useful thing to do. The question now, however, is whether there anything left here that isn't merely a trivial point. Let me take it as you say and analyze. Is the project just that this is the point at which the reader must engage their critical faculties? Okay, let's do that.

            X has said that Y, although seeming to propose isolated and independent measures, is actually engaged in pursuing a larger agenda. Okay, that's a factual claim. Does X advance plausible reasons to back up this claim? And on we go doing normal critical analysis. But here is the question" Is there any reason at all to treat this factual claim, that Y has an agenda, any different from any other factual claim made in a rhetorical argument? If not, MacDonald's whole pursuit here is trivial and must be disregarded. And I think it is either trivial or, as the quote from above suggests, just a new twist on ad hominem.

    • I agree, I don't see "agenda" as an inherently negative term. One hears "agenda for reform" or variants, and those are almost always used in a positive light by the agenda's supporters.

    • I agree, I don't see "agenda" as an inherently negative term. One hears "agenda for reform" or variants, and those are almost always used in a positive light by the agenda's supporters. It has an alpha-male, boardroom ring to it.

      • Folks, please try to see the forest, not just the trees. The way I worded the example in my email query to Andrew should not be taken too literally. I exaggerated when I said "almost certainly." Mea culpa.

        Of *course* the word "agenda" can be used neutrally. Probably any word can be. But just try finding a single example of someone using the term "right-wing agenda" without hating the right, or using the term "gay agenda" without hating gays. It's a word the use of which signals, intentionally or not, that advocacy is going on.

        Think of it this way: you would I think *never* see the word "agenda" used on an ostensibly-neutral government website (unless they're using the word in the OTHER sense, referring to a list of stuff to get done at a meeting).

        • Of *course* the word "agenda" can be used neutrally. Probably any word can be

          That's the point of this exercise, I thought: to find single words that aren't used neutrally. If it's just a question of finding phrases that signal advocacy, we're cataloging the universe.

          As to finding "agenda" used on a neutral government website, Google is your friend:

          National Children's Agenda
          Canada's Aid Effectiveness Agenda
          DFO Science's Five-Year Research Agenda

          . . . from the first page of 877 000 hits for "gc.ca" and "agenda."

          Or you could just trust my intuition about the English language, which I know quite well.

  7. calling something "controversial" is usually a dead giveaway.

  8. Talk of. I think that's inherently condescending / dismissive. E.g. "This talk of improving health care standards . . ."

    Perhaps ambitious? To my ears, there's usually a suggestion that someone's "ambitious" plans are bound to fail.

    Abstract. We anglospherics are suspicious of everything abstract, especially in politics. The reverse, always positive term is "concrete."

    Verbs: accomodate, placate, dismiss, override.

  9. I am not sure if this is what you have in mind, but 'right-wing' is a dog whistle in Canadian msm as far as I can tell. Whenever I read an article and the Fraser Institute or somesuch org is mentioned, inevitably 'right wing' appears before Fraser Institute but when The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives or similar org is mentioned no 'left wing' label appears.

    • I was going to post a similar comment. The same is true of people…conservative-leaning individuals are usually identified as "conservative", but left-leaning individuals are rarely identified as "liberal" (speaking only in the "small c" and "small l" sense of course). "Right wing" is a term I hear much more often as a descriptive term than "left wing"

      • While there is an element of this that is clearly true, it is also true that conservative-leaning individuals (and groups) tend to self identify and often compete to be "conservative" enough. This is true enough that being "pragmatic" can be a dirty word in such circles. On the other hand, most of the non-fringe left self identifies as being towards the centre. Calling a conservative a true conservative is a complement.

    • Conservatism lies more to the outside of normal political discourse in Canada, especially among the educated middle class (who are more likely to be consuming political information). It makes sense for a descriptor to show that the idea is likely a little out of the mainstream. Of course, with the Fraser Institute the big problem isn't their bent, it's the misleading data. Instead of "conservative think tank" they should just say "charlatans"/

  10. What post at Chris MacDonald's blog is Potter referring to?

    • He's not referring to any blog post. He was quoting from an email I sent him.

  11. I am not sure if this is what you have in mind, but 'right-wing' is a dog whistle in Canadian msm as far as I can tell. Whenever I read an article and the Fraser Institute or somesuch org is mentioned, inevitably 'right wing' appears before Fraser Institute but when The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives or similar org is mentioned no 'left wing' label is included.

  12. I generally find that when a political pundit invokes the term "non-partisan" in analyzing something, then the analysis must be cast in the "definitely partisan" bin.

    I'd also look for any phraseology that smacks of "humility": your humble servant, far be it for me to cast light on, this ink-stained wretch, etc. That sort of rhetorical device is supposed to give the impression that the writer is "of the people," i.e. on the reader's side, and that therefore the reader should agree with what the pundit proposes.

  13. Assertion.

    When we talk about "Mr X's assertion", we probably disagree with whatever claim Mr. X has made.

  14. angle

  15. Another easy one is "partisan".

    • He said he wants neutral words.

      • It is neutral. There is nothing wrong with making a "partisan" speech. However, it seems that only those that the writer disagrees with seem capable of being partisan. Our media rarely calls a Liberal speech or politician "partisan"

        • "Our media rarely calls a Liberal speech or politician "partisan"

          I'm sure this isn't true, but in any case, why would anyone think a speech from any politican isn't partisan?

  16. Baggage – not the kind that gets lost by airlines.

  17. “Notion.”

    • AC is fond of this one.

  18. cause (noun)

  19. Interestingly, the word "scheme" doesn't have the same connotative baggage on the other side of the Atlantic—there it's a pretty neutral synonym for "plan," and so you wind up with odd-to-North-American-eyes phrases like this, this and this.

    Back to the topic at hand, I nominate "embattled"

    • I was thinking the same thing about scheme. I have used it as a synonym for plan. Not anymore, I suppose….

  20. whenever someone faces "mounting pressure" or "mounting criticism", you can be sure of two things:

    1) it only takes one wishy-washy statement to constitute "mounting pressure" or "mounting criticism"
    2) the author agrees with the pressure or criticism being applied

  21. "Progressive" to denote the left.

    "Anti-choice" to denote anti-abortion.

  22. "Progressive" to denote the left.

    "Anti-choice" to denote anti-abortion.

    "Divisive" to denote anything the writer finds disagreeable.

  23. motive, program

  24. "well intentioned"

  25. 'Apologist'

    Any word prefixed with 'neo'.

    • Any word prefixed with 'neo'.

      That's interesting, and I think you're totally right. Would not have been the case ten years ago, though, eh? I.e. when the neo-cons were proudly naming themselves as such. Do you think it's just the negative resonance of "neo-conservative" that has affected all "neo-" prefixes?

      • Personally, I blame the Matrix (1999). Kidding. I think you're right that most "neo" prefixes were contaminated when "neo-con" became a pejorative.

  26. The Green party platform "…reads like a Council of Canadians communiqué from 1986 filtered through stale bongwater."

    Brilliant, sir.

  27. The always popular "there are those who say".