As we announced in January, by highlighting the everyday abuses of the language of public personalities and the media, Fair Observer’s new running feature prolongs the four-year-old tradition of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary (now reduced to a weekly format). We will frequently add new items to the month’s entries. Each item will cite an occurrence in the news and add a short reflection focusing on its intended and unintended meaning.
We invite readers to join us and submit their suggestions of words and expressions that deserve exploring, with or without original commentary. To submit a citation from the news and/or provide your own short commentary, send us an email.
February 1: Multiple Audiences
CNN reports that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is feeling some discomfort in the face of US President Joe Biden’s eagerness to create panic around the idea of a Russian threat. Zelensky himself describes Russia’s actions as “dangerous but ambiguous.”
“Earlier in the day, another source from the US side said there is a recognition in the White House that Zelensky has ‘multiple audiences’ and is trying to balance them. ‘On the one hand, he wants assistance, but he has to assure his people he has the situation under control. That’s a tricky balance.’”
Though the source cited only two of the audiences, there are certainly a few others that were not mentioned. It could be said that nearly every relatively powerless country has at least two audiences: its people and whatever hegemonic power has decided to support it. The United States is by far the most prolific hegemonic “audience” of countries across the globe, though some fear China may surreptitiously catch up. The idea of being an audience, of course, implies an attitude of listening attentively, usually through the hegemon’s diplomats but just as significantly, through its spies.
Why Monitoring Language Is Important
Language allows people to express thoughts, theories, ideas, experiences and opinions. But even while doing so, it also serves to obscure what is essential for understanding the complex nature of reality. When people use language to hide essential meaning, it is not only because they cynically seek to prevaricate or spread misinformation. It is because they strive to tell the part or the angle of the story that correlates with their needs and interests.
In the age of social media, many of our institutions and pundits proclaim their intent to root out “misinformation.” But often, in so doing, they are literally seeking to miss information.
Is there a solution? It will never be perfect, but critical thinking begins by being attentive to two things: the full context of any issue we are trying to understand and the operation of language itself. In our schools, we are taught to read and write, but, unless we bring rhetoric back into the standard curriculum, we are never taught how the power of language to both convey and distort the truth functions. There is a largely unconscious but observable historical reason for that negligence. Teaching establishments and cultural authorities fear the power of linguistic critique may be used against their authority.
Fair Observer’s Language and the News feature seeks to sensitize our readers to the importance of digging deeper when assimilating the wisdom of our authorities, pundits and the media that transmit their knowledge and wisdom.