Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #6

Muckraking is generally applied to searching out the truth about individuals and events, but can the importance of muckraking be applied to exposing the misuse of words?  In Isaac Werner's time people were hungry for education.  Farmers and businessmen spent evenings together reading Shakespeare.  Populist gatherings included study, and as scarce as cash was, they pooled resources to buy books.  Populists experimented with phonetic spelling to assist those who were illiterate or who did not speak English in being able to read.  School terms were short for farm children, but building a school in every community was a top priority, and the difficulty of student tests from the period show that despite the shortened school terms, children were expected to be scholars.  Knowledge and words mattered.

From my high school English text book
As a former high school English teacher and a writer, I have great interest in and respect for words.  I am not referring to grammar, although I also consider that very important.  Rather, I want to confine this post to the abuse of words, intentionally or negligently misused.

In my classroom I focused on words in several ways--developing vocabulary to enhance the ability to choose the right word to express a thought, choosing the right word grammatically, and understanding informal and formal word choices among others.  However, I also taught students how to recognize words being used to mislead.  In that sense, perhaps I was doing a bit of muckraking.

With my students, I often used television ads to illustrate how words can be manipulated to mislead, since my students were familiar with the ads they saw on tv.  A student once asked me whether I watched the programs or flipped channels to watch only ads, perplexed by my familiarity with so many  advertisements.  Even today I am guilty of correcting grammar, word choice, and pronunciation of people on the television, as if the speaker could hear me, when only my poor, suffering husband can.

Portrait of Niccoli Machiavelli
Sadly, perhaps no profession practices the art of using words to mislead and deflect more often than politicians.  An adviser to a former British Prime Minister claimed to have mastered the art of "lying without lying," confessing that he had a "talent for avoiding the truth without lying."  (BBC article by David Edmunds, 12-1-2015)  The article pointed out that politicians that want to get elected and re-elected are more likely to succeed by telling voters what they want to hear than by "confronting them with miserable realities."

Researcher Dan Ariely told CBS newsman Brian Montopoli that his research found that "Americans have a high tolerance for dishonesty when it comes from their own candidate."  In the August 3, 2012 interview, Ariely said, "Many voters have become so cynical that they really don't expect candidates to speak the verifiable truth, and they accept these exaggerations, these mild falsifications, as just part of the game."

You may have noticed that the articles I am citing are not current.  I do not intend this blog to be a comment on specific current politicians but rather an exploration of how words can be abused in marketing and politics to mislead us.  The practice isn't new.  Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  Distant past, recent past, or current comments, misleading and outright lying exist.  The BBC article from 2015 concluded, "modern politicians mislead every day of their lives [which] is directly 'connected to the fact that trust in politicians has been corroded over the last 40 years.'"  I fear that corrosion has not improved since then.

Portrait of Edmund Burke
News men and women may attempt to draw attention to falsehoods, but too often readers, listeners, and viewers simply go in search of a source more sympathetic to their point of view, rather than appreciating having been alerted to the falsehoods of someone they like.

Probably the closest thing we have to word muckrakers are our modern day fact checkers.  One has even taken that name for their site: .  They are a nonprofit website that describes themselves as a "consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in American politics."  Two other sources that might be considered muckrakers for words are Politifact and  Snopes does not confine themselves to political fact checking but checks all sorts of rumors and myths.

Unfortunately, with the internet assisting, lies and half- truths can outrun fact checkers before the absolute truth that Teddy Roosevelt demanded can be determined.  As a consequence, the words of Edmund Burke from 1796 that "Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever..." may no longer be a social norm.  However, what is certainly true is Burke's conclusion:  "But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth."

The muckraking series continues next week.



1 comment:

Neuble said...

I wish the Times and Washington would publish this series, great stuff. Thanks Lynn