Quote: “Unspeak.” Title of a new book by Stephen Poole.
Figure of Speech: neologism, the new word. The word itself is a synonym for commonplace, a label crafted out of boiled-down public opinion.
Here’s yet another book bemoaning the decline of our language and the conning of us poor sops, the citizenry. Poole’s book describes a kind of word that’s used as a “weapon,” such as pro-choice, pro-life, or reform. These terms gag debate, he says. Utter hooey, says Figaro. They only work if we let them.
The book’s title actually employs the same device Poole denounces. Using our belief in unfettered speech, he applies a shocking label — unspeak — to the practice of labeling.
What Poole claims to be a new phenomenon is at least 2,500 years old. Aristotle called it a “commonplace,” a term or phrase based on the audience’s own beliefs, values and naked self-interest. Tax relief and tax burden, for example, are excellent commonplace labels. Poole thinks they’re bad, because they prevent pro-tax arguments. But what sane politician would promote a tax for the sake of taxes? Better to emphasize the need for “fairness.” This, too, is a commonplace label — the building block of deliberative debate.
But labels are manipulative! Indeed they are. Still, rhetorical manipulation requires a subtle understanding of public opinion. What’s the alternative: Telling it like it is? Sticking to our guns? We already have a president who does that.
Besides, Figaro loves rhetoric’s refreshing lack of rules. Rhetoric says to humanity, Don’t ever change, you’re beautiful. Any sort of discourse that required reforming humans, as Poole proposes, would turn Figaro into a survivalist. We don’t want to buy the world a Coke and live in perfect harmony; harmony means unanimity, and history shows that unanimity is a scary thing.
Snappy Answer: “That goes without saying.”