COLUMN

The frightening tyranny of language

The Globe and Mail’s stylebook goes beyond spelling or policies on obscenity: it seeks to put its ideological stamp on reporting

BARBARA AMIEL December 31 1990
COLUMN

The frightening tyranny of language

The Globe and Mail’s stylebook goes beyond spelling or policies on obscenity: it seeks to put its ideological stamp on reporting

BARBARA AMIEL December 31 1990

The frightening tyranny of language

The Globe and Mail’s stylebook goes beyond spelling or policies on obscenity: it seeks to put its ideological stamp on reporting

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

On Monday, Dec. 10, The Globe and Mail published a new stylebook, its first since 1976. Normally, stylebooks are used to check idiosyncrasies. Are reporters permitted, for example, to use an ampersand (“&”) in their copy? However, the front-page story that trumpeted the new edition of the Globe’s stylebook explained that changes to actual rules and spelling were relatively small. What then, I wondered, was the need for a new book?

The Globe was pleased to inform me. The changes “... are the book’s detailed policies on women and language, reflecting the Globe’s desire to avoid sexist language; on obscene language; on foreign and French words; on the handling of quotations; and on expressions dealing with disabled people.” The Globe invited “interested members of the public” to purchase a copy of the book. I couldn’t wait.

In the book, the Globe assures readers that it has taken special care “not to sacrifice clarity and precision on the altar of trendiness. ’’Alas, if this was the pitfall the stylebook editors wished to avoid, I regret to inform them that they have failed—miserably.

Skipping through the book, my eyes came to rest on the entry for the phrase “Iron Curtain, the.” Here is what the Globe had to say: “Use only in direct quotes: Whether the term described reality or actually helped to shape it is open to argument, but the new levels of travel and commerce among European countries certainly make it inaccurate today.”

The newsroom of The Globe and Mail, it seems, regards the 1945 speech of Winston Churchill, in which the phrase “Iron Curtain” was first used, as simply a policy tip to the Soviets. Perhaps, the Globe editors visualized Stalin listening to Churchill and leaping from his bath exclaiming “Eureka,” or the Russian equivalent, as he went about making reality conform to Churchill’s metaphor.

What this reveals is that the Globe has a mind-set that in 1990 doubts matters which the present Central Committee of the Soviet

Communist party has not doubted for several years—namely, that they have lived under a tyranny for the past 70 years. I don’t think one needs to analyse this further, but it ought to be noted, particularly by any schools planning to use the thoughts of Chairman Globe and Mail as “resource” material.

This mind-set is important, however, because it tells us a great deal about the rest of the book. The problem is not a matter of whether the editors are too left-wing or too right-wing. The error is far more basic. What is revealed is that regardless of how you feel about such matters as “women’s issues” or “race” or any contentious issue, the Globe’s editors are in thrall to one serious misunderstanding.

Essentially, they follow a very primitive type of belief that judgment follows words. They think that the renaming of something they judge bad or undesirable will cause people to change their judgment of it. By using euphemisms for disapproved ideas, the Globe believes that you can make the bad idea disappear.

A perfect example of this is the use of the word “crippled.” This word, as the Globe explains, is now in disfavor. Since the days of

“crippled,” we have substituted “handicapped,” which the Globe tells us is now also a no-no. The preferred word is “disabled.” Crippled, handicapped, disabled: it will all give off the same negativism since human beings have a natural fear and aversion to the state of being less than whole in body.

I could have chosen dozens of other entries to make the point. The section on “Women” would be hilarious were it not so lunatic. Globe writers must avoid words like “manpower,” “the common man” and “man in the street.” They are reminded that this does not have to be carried to “extremes,” so diligent Globe writers need not worry about using “boycott” and “manufactured.” The editors are worried about terms like “manmade” and draw the line at fireman or postman. Writers must use gender-free words such as “letter carrier.” “Hackneyed” and “stereotyped” expressions like “old wives’ tales” must be replaced by such fresh, original phrases as the Globe’s suggestion of “superstition” or “popular misconception.” This would simply be laughable were it not that the substitute phrase is inaccurate and that old wives’ tales are by common acknowledgment most often true. Unfortunately, adds the stylebook, “words such as harbor master and taskmaster pose a problem with no easy solution.”

Under the entry for race, while there is a great deal with which I would agree, I find it ludicrous to say that it is wrong to describe somebody as “part Indian” or “part black” on grounds that this suggests that white is the standard. In itself, the phrase “part Indian” carries no such connotation whatsoever. But the fact remains that just as in Africa the standard, numerically speaking, is black, or in the Orient the standard, numerically speaking, is Oriental, in Europe and North America the numerical standard is in fact white. What on earth is wrong with stating that? It is simply an observation of plain fact.

But there is a more fundamental objection to this stylebook. The Globe has decided that the phobias of the most hypersensitive, intolerant, humorless and narrowly ideological segment of the population will determine its language. The plain fact is that you could count on the fingers of one hand the people who worry about the use of the word “harbor master.”

More importantly, having such a stylebook makes a mockery of a free press. This is a stylebook that goes far beyond the legitimate areas of spelling or policies on obscenity: this book seeks to put its ideological stamp on reporting. This is profoundly anti-intellectual and would be so even if I agreed with every entry. The whole point about writing is that one seeks the mot juste, and the mot juste is one that no style writer can decide ahead of time. And while it can be argued that editors and writers will always be free to employ their own words when justified, in spite of the stylebook, the onus will be on them to justify their departure. A stylebook that goes beyond spelling or punctuation or notions of that kind is antithetical to both good and free journalism. The Globe and Mail—and Canada—can illafford this nonsense.