A writer friend recently told my son about an exercise he was given in a high school composition class. The idea was to show how word choice affects the mood and emotional weather of your prose. He recalled an example from TIME magazine. (For younger readers: TIME used to be — long, long ago — an important news outlet; that TIME is not to be confused with the virtue-signaling enterprise of the same name that has taken its place). Consider the different rhetorical implications of these two sentences:
Truman slunk from the back room to huddle with his cronies.
Eisenhower strode from the chamber to consult with his advisers.
Would you rather “slink” or “stride”? Do you frequent “back rooms” or occupy “chambers”? Is it, outside the precincts of American football, more dignified to “huddle” or “consult”? And those with whom you do parley: are they “cronies” or “advisers”?
You know the answers to all of these questions and you can see how those different choices of words reveal very different attitudes about the subjects under discussion.
According to my friend, the point of the exercise was admonitory. It was to caution novice writers to be careful lest their prejudices infect their word choice and thereby spoil their reliability as accurate, dispassionate reporters.
I suspect many writers for The New York Times absorbed something like the amusing example my friend retailed without, however, taking on board the moral about preserving one’s reputation for accuracy and (so far as is humanly possible) bias-free reporting.
Consider the opening sentence of the Times’s report on Ireland’s vote to legalise abortion last May: “Ireland voted decisively to repeal one of the world’s more restrictive abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy and dealing the latest in a series of stinging rebukes to the Roman Catholic Church.”
Striding through chambers — decisively striding through chambers — to consult with one’s advisers, right?
Compare that with the Times’s reporting on Argentina’s defeat last week of a bill to legalise abortion. “Argentina’s Senate on Thursday narrowly rejected a bill to legalize abortion, dealing a stinging defeat to a grass-roots movement that pushed reproductive rights to the top of the country’s legislative agenda and galvanized activist groups throughout Latin America.”
Got it. “Sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy” vs. “a stinging defeat” for “reproductive rights,” i.e., license to kill unborn (or, in some cases, barely born) babies.
Are you on the side of progress, Kemo Sabe, or are you part of the soon-to-be-dust-binned “conservative patriarchy”?
Words are wonderful things. Consider the phrase “affirmative action.” It began life, innocently enough, describing the effort to avoid discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex. and kindred traits. Who was the genius that seized upon the phrase and twisted it to mean the opposite, that is, active discrimination precisely on the basis of those very things?
Something similar can be said of the phrases “reproductive rights” and “pro choice.” The malevolent irony in the phrase “reproductive rights” is that it means “non-reproductive rights,” i.e., the right to stymie reproduction, and “pro choice” means “no choice” for the entity most affected, i.e., the unborn baby.
Of course, we are meant to regard what happened in Ireland as a dramatic blow for the forces of enlightenment, sexual equality, and right-thinking generally: progress, emancipation from the hideous machinations of soon-to-be-dead white guys, etc. By the same token, the Times wants its readers to regard Argentina’s decision as an atavistic hold-over from the benighted past: a blight, but also but a temporary blight. The Times ends its column by quoting a 33-year-old female designer who “fought back tears as she spoke” (i.e., opponents of abortion are unfeeling brutes): “We will no longer be silent and we won’t let them win. Abortion will be legal soon. Very soon.”
She might very well be right. Latin America, after all, is no more immune to the secular forces of de-Christianisation than Ireland. The question is, would that really be progress? In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a near future when scientific advances have rendered genetic manipulation the rule. Babies are no longer born, they are decanted in specialty depots like The Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre which carefully oversee and distribute the requisite talents to the right number of future citizens. In this version of paradise “mother” and “monogamy” are blasphemous terms from which people have been conditioned to recoil in visceral revulsion. Perhaps Ireland is already well down that road.
What would Sarah Jeong, the latest addition to the Times’s editorial board, say? She was hired to write about technology and the internet. The scraps I have seen of her writing on those subjects suggest that she is long on minatory identity politics and short on technical competence. But she wasn’t hired for competence. She was hired for her attitudes. She hates men. She hates whites. She hates the police. Custom made, in other words, for The New York Times editorial page. Dissecting the Times’s defense of this pathetic creature is the subject for another column. In the present context, it is just worth keeping Sarah Jeong and her many hatreds in mind as you savour how the Times discusses, disarms, distances, and disposes of the once-fraught issue of abortion. How deplorable, how irredeemable are those who still concern themselves with this sorry item from yesterday’s news!
The Times doubtless sees itself striding from its august chambers to consult with the only advisers it can countenance: people who think exactly as they do.
I suspect that there are many of us, however, who look back and see a grubby decaying behemoth skulking into the rancid shadows to huddle with its cronies.