As a writer of fiction, my job—according to colleague and wise-woman Ursula LeGuin—is to put into words what cannot be put into words. Tall order. The tools with which I am supposed to do this are words. Words arranged in such a way that I can convey to my reader what my characters are sensing, feeling, thinking and doing. I need to be able to subtly and not-so-subtly manipulate the reader’s thoughts and feelings to get the action, atmosphere and meaning of my story across.
It is said of fiction writers that we tell lies to get at the truth. Stories aren’t lies, of course, they’re propositions—speculations about what might happen if… They are not intended to be taken as factually true and, while they can be said to reflect reality, they are not intended to be mistaken for reality.
The movie Galaxy Quest trades on the simplistic notion that a work of fiction is a lie, which—as much as I love the movie—is nonsense. Speculative fiction is, as my literary hero Ray Bradbury has said, our way of making reality behave by pretending to look the other way. And we all—writers and readers alike—agree that we are pretending to believe a fiction is real so that we might learn something important about ourselves and about reality.
Alas, in the real world of non-fiction, of news reporting, of blogging and journalism both professional and amateur, there are often situations in which the writer of a piece knows he is pretending, but the reader does not. There are also circumstances in which no one knows they are pretending. This results in communications that convey more opinion and emotion than fact and in a manner that is opaque to many readers.
Writers frequently use words that carry with them a sort of built-in dynamic. Let me give a rather innocuous example from a fictional setting. Here’s the setup. A middle-schooler on a skateboard cuts across the path of a businessman on a city sidewalk. In relating the tale the businessman might take any one of several approaches, depending on how he feels about the encounter:
- He’s neutral about the encounter and relates the dry facts: I was just stepping up onto the curb when a skateboarder zipped in front of me.
- He’s amused by the encounter: I must be getting old. I was just stepping up onto the curb when a kid on a skateboard comes shooting out of nowhere and almost runs over the toes of my shoes. I opened my mouth to scold him then realized that was me ten years ago.
- He’s incensed by the encounter: So I’m barely across the street when this punk on a skateboard practically mows me down. I had to stop just short of the curb until he was gone. The light was about to change, and there I was stranded in the street. He almost got me killed!
The different nouns used to identify the skateboarder alone give the story a different spin. He’s a skateboarder, or a kid, or a punk. The events are the same, but the emotional content of their retelling is very different.
This is fine in fiction. It’s not so fine in the relation of real events. Writers of non-fiction use vivid adjectives and sturdy verbs to convey, not just facts, but emotions that can cloud any issue. Why is this a problem? Because it can keep us from dealing with the neutral facts because we are too busy reacting to the emotional language. This is no less true of the people charged with solving the problems we face as a nation and a species than it is of the people who demand that they solve those problems—that is, us.
Would you be surprised to know that this is important enough to warrant being dealt with in Bahá’í scripture as a core principle? Before one sets off on the path of search, Bahá’u’lláh writes,
He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. — Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CXXV (p 264)
I had a friend who included me on a mailing list through which she sent her entire e-address book disturbing articles about everything from vaccinations to windmills. I read them and noticed that if you took out all of the colorful adjectives (sometimes they were literally in color) that cast vaccinations as toxic hazards and windmills as the engines of doom, there was no there there. The actual facts of the articles were few and quite neutral—but the colorful word art could (and did) inspire fear. When I began to make a habit of deconstructing the articles and suggesting that the folks on the list try reading them without the adjectives, my friend first blocked recipients from responding to the entire list, then removed me from it entirely.
My advice to all: When you read an article or hear a story that represents a particular point of view (even one you agree with) first try to detach yourself from your own biases, then consciously remove the descriptive language from the account and see what’s really there. And it’s not just adjectives one needs to be wary of. As you saw in the first illustration above, nouns and verbs can also be employed to manipulate a reader’s perceptions.
By way of example, the NPR website carried a story with a headline that read: President Jabs at Congress. I read the transcript of the President’s remarks. There was no jabbing. The POTUS had responded to Congress in a straightforward manner, noting points of disagreement, and explaining why he disagreed. Headlines, however, are intended to capture attention and “President Responds to Congress” just doesn’t have the impact the more active image of him jabbing at them does. It conjures images of boxers sparring or a kid poking at a sleeping tiger through the bars of its cage. The problem, of course, is that if someone fails to read the President’s actual remarks (and many will), they will be left with the impression that the President’s response to Congress was contentious when it was not. They may even comment on it in the readers’ section of the website and end up embroiled in verbal conflict. My response was to contact the NPR ombudsman and ask if they would exercise a bit more oversight on the tenor of their headlines.
I’ve repeatedly seen how an emotionally biased headline can color the readers’ perceptions of the article’s content. If they have a strong expectation of combativeness or arrogance or gentleness or humility based on the headline, they are more likely to read it into the article. The more emotion they have invested in the expectation, the more likely they are to “read between the lines” and the less likely they are to be persuaded that what they believe to be there is not, in fact, there. In the case of gentler emotions, one can argue “no harm, no foul”. In the case of negative emotions, there is always some harm, the question is only how much and to whom?
Many of our impressions of people, places, and situations are influenced—even manipulated—by the way they are reported in the media (which is another reason why I often read the same story from several different sources). The media can either facilitate or interfere with our independent investigation of reality and our search for truth. If they lay out facts clearly and unambiguously and allow the reader or viewer to draw their own conclusions they are helpful to the rest of us in our search for truth. If they obscure the facts with word art, they interfere, and we and our society are poorer for that.
Bahá’u’lláh wrote about this in the 1800’s:
“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet of Tarazát (Ornaments)
Words are powerful things. They can make us laugh or cry, smile or smite; they can help us stay informed or lead us to be misinformed. Short of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, we are pretty much free to use them as we will. We are also free to consume them; we are, as the saying goes, what we eat.
To read for comprehension—to approach a subject rationally—it’s sometimes necessary to, first, consider the source, then turn a deaf ear to the colorful verbiage that’s there to condition how we see reality.
Next time: What if it really is rocket science?