Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fin de Fisque?

It's a sure sign that your journalistic career is in decline when you resort to tirades against "modern life" and moan about how things ain't what they used to be. Popular topics for this sort of article include political correctness (invariably "in a process of mental decline") or technology ("I don't know why people need computers, I managed perfectly well scratching on vellum when I was at school") ruining our lives.

The third soft target for the lazy columnist is the pernicious spread of neologisms and "meaningless" jargon throughout our society. Robert Fisk, longtime friend of the blogger and inspiration for a verb himself, stumbles pitifully in front of an empty net in the Independent today.

He rails against the excessive management-speak of "excellence" and "mission statements", which is hardly going to win him another award:

There is something repulsive about this vocabulary, an aggressive language of superiority in which "key players" can "interact" with each other, can "impact" society, "outsource" their business - or "downsize" the number of their employees. They need "feedback" and "input". They think "outside the box" or "push the envelope". They have a "work space", not a desk. They need "personal space" - they need to be left alone - and sometimes they need "time and space", a commodity much in demand when marriages are failing.

I'll give him some of those: the kind of people who use the term "think outside the box" are the ones who are least likely to do so, and "downsize" and "outsource" are obvious euphemisms that don't really add to our vocabulary. But can he explain how "I just need some time and space" should be better expressed? Perhaps, "get the hell out of my house, you cheating bastard" conveys a similar message, but it's hardly likely to help a couple going through a rocky patch, is it?

I wondered if Mr Fisk hadn't been reading this excellent foul-mouthed blog when he jumped on the word "workshop":

To me a workshop means what it says. When I was at school, the workshop was a carpentry shop wherein generations of teachers vainly tried to teach Fisk how to make a wooden chair or table that did not collapse the moment it was completed. But today, a "workshop" - though we mustn't say so - is a group of tiresome academics yakking in the secret language of anthropology or talking about "cultural sensitivity" or "core issues" or "tropes".

Of course, the definition of workshop has for many years been broad enough to cover the building of ideas as well as furniture (surely they had drama workshops in the 60s, Robert?), but I'll defer to his knowledge on tiresome yakking.

This language is a disease, he continues, although stress might not be:

In northern Iraq in 1991, I was once ordered by a humanitarian worker from the "International Rescue Committee" to leave the only room I could find in the wrecked town of Zakho because it had been booked for her fellow workers - who were very "stressed". Pour souls, I thought. They were stressed, "stressed out", trying - no doubt - to "come to terms" with their predicament, attempting to "cope".

Pity the poor sod who found Robert Fisk in their hotel room. That would probably spark off a panic attack in most people. No matter either that the aid worker might have been a non-native English speaker, perhaps one who wanted to use a catch-all term for tired, exhausted, fed-up, nervous, frightened, traumatised or whatever other emotions they might have been feeling after a hard day helping people in a warzone.

Fisk highlights "come to terms" and "cope" as if they were unusual phrases and it's soon apparent why. They are "the language of therapy", the refuge of "frauds, cheats and liars". Hmm. Therapy is a bad way of dealing with problems, isn't it? Unlike in the Middle East, where Fisk lives, where revenge and bloodshed have solved most things over the years. Yes, no doubt on that score: Suicide bombers 1, Psychoanalysts 0.

And he continues tiresomely in this vein, clearly hoping to share a soapbox with John Humphrys someday.

What Fisk fails to realise in his piece is that languages are not fixed entities like the coffee table he would have built at school, but are constantly evolving. Do we still speak Norman French in the UK? Or Latin? English is almost unique in its adaptability and has a broad vocabulary, the expansion of which we should welcome, rather than decry. After all, even if we don't like words like "outsourcing" or "downsizing" or "ethnic cleansing", our dislike of the acts they describe is what actually counts.

War reporters like Robert Fisk spend their careers trying to prove the pen is as mighty as the sword - perhaps they ought to embrace the "spike" of weapons in their armoury, or, at the very least, stick to the bloody topics they know best.


sackcloth and ashes said...

'When I was at school, the workshop was a carpentry shop wherein generations of teachers vainly tried to teach Fisk how to make a wooden chair or table that did not collapse the moment it was completed.'

What, like all the articles he writes, once they're subjected to critical scrutiny?

'In northern Iraq in 1991, I was once ordered by a humanitarian worker from the "International Rescue Committee" to leave the only room I could find in the wrecked town of Zakho because it had been booked for her fellow workers - who were very "stressed". Pour souls, I thought. They were stressed, "stressed out", trying - no doubt - to "come to terms" with their predicament, attempting to "cope".'

Seeing as they were actually trying to help thousands of Kurdish refugees on the margin of survival, rather than emote about them in a newspaper column, I'd say it's a fair comment to describe the aid workers as 'stressed'. But perhaps Fisk prefers clarity and cutting to the chase, which is he would have probably preferred the following -
'Get out of our room, you sanctimonious, hypocritical two-bit hack c***'.

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