“Neologisms and the Knowledge Society: Functions of Language in the Era of Globalization.” So what are the revolutionary new functions of language in this brave new world, anyway? One cannot know. “This page uses Windows Media Technology. Your browser [Firefox] does not support them.” Which is by way of being, what’s the pseudoterminology they use nowadays? A non-antiuntruth? True 2.0? It’s Windows Media Technology that refuses to support my platform. Source: Telefónica Foundation (Spain). Click to zoom.
“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words” –George Orwell, 1984
EUPHEMISM, (n.) 1. a socially acceptable word or expression used to replace unacceptable or taboo language, as words or expressions for bodily functions. 2. a substitution for straightforward language that tactfully conceals or, in the extreme, falsifies the meaning of that which it replaces.
If there’s one product American business can produce in large amounts, it’s doublespeak. Doublespeak is language that only pretends to say something; it’s language that hides, evades or misleads. With doublespeak, banks don’t have “bad loans” or “bad debts”; they have “nonperforming assets” or “nonperforming credits” which are “rolled over” or “rescheduled.” Corporations never lose money; they just experience “negative cash flow,” “deficit enhancement,” “net profit revenue deficiencies,” or “negative contributions to profits.” —William Lutz, “Life Under the Chief Doublespeak Officer”
The Wall Street Journal‘s Deal Journal Web column — a worthy competitor to the New York Times‘ Dealbook — copes elegantly today with a problem that is frequently encountered by journalists and other categories of naked ape.
We need to make conversation about a burning issue of the day, or what’s more, figure out what do about it. The problem is that we need more information before we can reach any firm conclusions about it. What to do?
When uncertainty abounds, the wise and useful journalist stops trying to write declarative sentences — Daniel Dantas’ buyout of the Editora Três is a done deal! — and starts working on formulating good questions.
Genuine questions are forms of language designed to elicit more information. This is what journalists (used to) do for a living.
Faced with a big, fat empty page, a deadline, and the realization that you know next to nothing about the topic of the day, here’s what you do: Call up various people who might be in a position to know and ask them to explain it to you.
Run it in the space-hogging format of a Q&A transcript. Stick in headshots of the people you talked to to pad the page. Bada bing. You are done in time for lunch, and you do not have to worry about failed speculative prognostications coming back to make you look like nothing more than just another a gabbling, logic-chopping pundit.
The Deal Journal poses an excellent question today, for example:
When does an “improvement in liquidity” represent a “bailout”?
Take an inventory of what we do know, framed in terms of what we fear, and hope, might happen next:
Consider that an estimated 25% of the total $400 billion SIV universe comes from Citigroup-affiliated SIV funds. And that Citigroup-affiliated funds have already sold $20 billion in assets. At its most simple, the superconduit is a means by which a large collection of banks can keep “reasonable” pricing on some of their affiliated securities. And it is this pricing that is the key to the whole operation. It’s obvious they won’t be priced at market rates because there’s not much of a market to begin with (and why the superconduit exists in the first place).
Given that, the question is:
But where exactly do they get priced? To whose benefit? And by which standard?
Reason for hope:
Liquidity syndicates were what helped save the day during the Panic of 1907. Given the partial return of investors to the LBO credit markets, there is plenty of reason to hope that investors will once again be buying SIV-related paper in the months ahead.
But if wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets in the sea. In the meantime …
But until that time, four main points still remain oustanding:
- How much pricing confidence can be created in a market when banks are in essence buying paper from themselves?
- Might the mere existence of the superconduit create more doubts about the financial sector, stoking even more panic than the amount it was meant to quell?
- How will the banks structure their public relations to answer the simple question: Are they throwing good money after bad?
- What responsibility will be taken by the bank CEOs who blessed the rush into these structures in the first place? In other words, how will Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince explain this on Monday morning?
An appreciative reader writes:
Bless you for raising the key question. There is a dire need to bring out the culpability of the banks. The bailouts have all been for and on account of the banks, something that is sorely misunderstood by many.
“What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles.” –G.W.F. Hegel.
Many are not clear who the LTCM bailout was for. LTCM was not the one bailed out. The banks that recklessly lent credit to LTCM were. Reports of the meeting in the Fed boardroom clearly indicate unaffected market players were forced to participate, against their better judgment. The reckless creditor banks were not required to take their medicine.
Rewarding failure and punishing competence:
Today you have the direct consequence of that. Banks have recklessly supported a speculative market in securities that are now toxic waste. These banks have toxic waste on their books, and freely move these on and off the books to hide losses.
Hard-nosed numbers: Chuck is ground round. Source: W$J, October 16
In the parallel universe of Journalism 2.0 and “innovation journalism,” in the meantime, there’s a corresponding phenomenon that I like to call nam myoho renge kyo [南無妙法蓮華經] journalism.
I call it that after the mantra chanted by practicioners of Nichiren Shoshu, a minor Buddhist sect whose theology was appropriated after WWII by the ultrarightist Soka Gakkai lay organization and political party in Japan, which began to flourish during the spiritual turbulence of the 1960s.
It literally means “the mystical law of cause and effect through sound.”
Members of that organization — I was raised in it, by the way — are encouraged to believe that, with the aid of this mantra, desired results can be achieved by sheer force of will. The chant creates mystical vibrations in the Universe that bend the Universe to your desires.
The concept is that wishes are fishes, if you dream it hard enough.
It is a form of magical thinking. Recall the infamous “reality-based community” remarks by a “senior official at the Bush White House”:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
My father, for example, used to get up at Nichiren Shoshu meetings and recount the following “experience”: Too flat broke to buy gas, but desperately searching for work, he furiously “chanted for” his car not to run out of gas before he found some. Miraculously, he would tell prospective converts, his 1964 Corvair ran for an entire week with the needle on the gas-gauge pegged to E for empty.
A more likely explanation: The gas gauge on that notoriously cheap piece of junk — “unsafe at any speed” — was simply malfunctioning.
You can also think of this as “self-fulfilling prophecy” journalism.
In his book Social Theory and Social Structure, Robert Merton gives as a feature of the self-fulfilling prophecy: “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a true definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come ‘true’. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”
Which is a terrible definition. Did you understand any of that? Why does sociological writing always seem to be as murky as the German metaphysics that Carlyle satirized in Sartor Resartus? (Thorstein Veblen being a notable exception.) A Wikipedian tries to boil it down to words of two syllables:
In other words, a true prophetic statement — a prophecy declared as truth when it is not — may sufficiently influence people, either through fear or logical confusion, so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the false prophecy.
Better, but still confusing.
What it often amounts to, I think you could say, is a desired result, couched as a disinterested prediction based on a putative trend — often based on cooked or fuzzy numbers — and stated as a fait accompli — or as a highly probable outcome — by an interested party who does not disclose his interest.
In other words, it is a form of buzz-machine engineering and rumor-mongering.
A form of eliciting desired behavior from people by disinforming them.
In other words, suppose I want Daniel Dantas to prevail in his bid to buy the Editora Três down here in Brazil, or for Harvard Law professor Mangabeira Unger to prevail in his bid to become Brazil’s “Minister of Future.”
I then report that “sources close to the matter” say that those transactions are virtually “a done deal.” “The momentum is swinging their way.” “Current trends are favorable.” “(Anonymous) insiders are betting heavily in favor of the deal getting done.” “The smart money is on” Dantas, or Mangabeira Unger.
“Fear, uncertainty and doubt” is a similar technique, obviously — the flip-side of the nam myoho renge kyo gambit. It focuses, not on the hope of achieving a desired outcome, but the fear of suffering an undesirable one.
Examples can be multiplied.
John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for the Intel-Inside Society, for example, is often to be found giving nam myoho renge kyo quote to the trade press, for example — as is his local equivalent here, Ronaldo Lemos of the FGV.
During the YouTube controversy down here in Brazil, for example — the legal issue of Google’s liability for repeated postings of an unauthorized video showing an MTV Brasil veejay having sex on the beach in Spain with her boyfriend, a Merrill Lynch investment banker with a degree in fashion design, and scion of a local Medici clan that owns half the Avenida Paulista — Palfrey informed the (aptly named) Red Herring that the case illustrated a global trend toward making ISPs liable for content published using their services.
The fact is that there is a tension between, and an ongoing debate, about the accountability of transnational information services to local law. The issue will be resolved by authorized deciders deciding.
Palfrey advocates one proposed solution to the so-called “conflict of laws” problem.
But he advocates that position dishonestly, by misrepresenting the actual risk and uncertainty inherent in the situation — that is, by concealing the existence of actors with conflicting agendas who actually do have a, what do they call it, non-zero probability of prevailing in the political conflict.
More generally, in fancy little Latin and less Greek, this what you call your petitio principii or ignoratio elenchi:
An argument that may in itself be valid, but doesn’t address the issue in question. “Ignoratio elenchi” can be roughly translated by ignorance of refutation, that is, ignorance of what a refutation is; “elenchi” is from the Greek έλεγχος, meaning an argument of disproof or refutation.
It’s a fancy concept, using fancy words, but it’s easy enough to clarify with an example: Take the case of a Brazilian IT industry publication (and Microsoft stealth marketer) that claims — falsely — that it is “the only news service for IT professionals in Brazil!”
There are dozens of more or less readable, more or less successful competing news services for IT professionals in Brazil.
Those folks, by the way, are masters of the dodge we started out by considering: The disingenous rhetorical question. When they ask their readers,
(1) “Does it pay to partner with Microsoft?”
What they really mean to say is,
(2) “It pays to partner with Microsoft!”
The form of words in (1) implies a balanced presentation of the pros and cons of such a business relationship.
What you are not told, however, is that these “journalists” are paid to promote proposition (2).
- “Parallel Universe” Innovation Marketing of Interactive Soap Operas!
- Brochureware Case Study of the Week: “The Bloomberg of the Internet”
- I Am Qurious (Yellow Journalism): A Trivial Exercise in Documenting the Rhetoric of the Technological Sublime
In a related story, one of Brazil’s most prominent business magazines features — without any apparent irony — a regular column by a leading business astrologer.
“A leading business astrologer.”
Holy freaking cow.
Oh, well: My digression for the day. The moving fingers blog, and having blogged, move on to actual paying work. File under:
- RTS+DRQ: A Random Walk With Lucy in the Sky Through the Strawberry Fields of Pseudo-Terminology in Contemporary Tech PR
- Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt: An Essential Bibliography
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane“ –Emperor Marcus Aurelius