In this book, Steven Poole goes to great lengths to cite evidence for "Unspeak", a term he coins for the "mode of speech that persuades by stealth". He describes dozens of examples, including phrases like "pro-life", "ethnic cleansing" and "freedom is on the march". He accuses mostly the American and British political and corporate circles of drilling these misleading terms into the minds of the public, cleverly hiding political arguments in euphemistic-sounding terms. For example, if you're not pro-life, what does that make you? "Anti-life" or "pro-death" - either way, opponents of the pro-life camp are automatically demonized.
This book offers a lot of food for thought. We are encouraged to have a thoughtful mind and a critical eye on everything, but rarely do we reflect on the name itself. Names, when repeated often enough, enter into our subconscious and we are not even aware of their appropriateness. This is in fact a kind of subliminal brainwash.
But we are not powerless. What we can do is quite simple: stay vigilant. When we encounter a new term, think about it thoroughly to see if it hides any political connotation. We may not be able to stop the onslaught of Unspeak, but at least we can refuse to be heedless perpetrators.
The book is not without flaws though. Steven Poole has truly done a lot of research on this, but sometimes he gets a little carried away, treating almost all government-speak and media-speak to be Unspeak. Although it is true that "words have consequences in the world", the consequences are not always as dire as he thinks. He condemns the term "ethnic cleansing" and argues that people are misled by the positive term "cleansing". This is simply a naive belief. All around the world people are fully aware of the atrocity of acts of "ethnic cleansing" (helped by graphic news photographs no doubt), and I doubt if any educated person would mistake it for, say, scrubbing the back of an immigrant.
It is true that people are influenced by the names of things, but sooner or later they will be able to see through the names and get to the heart of the matter. Unspeak is not as devastating as he thinks....Continua