Words matter. They communicate meaning from one individual to another. Used effectively, the message will be clear and understandable. Sometimes, however, words can serve to confuse. Or worse by leaving the message sender and its recipient with different understanding of the meaning.
I got to thinking about this when I saw an item in yesterday’s CustomScoop PR Blog Jots that referred to a Slate review of Steven Poole’s Unspeak. According to the review by Jack Shafer, Poole argues that unspeak boils down to:
an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak—in the sense of erasing, or silencing—any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one choice of looking at a problem.
Shafer goes on to cite phrases from the book or his own experience that would be considered unspeak by this definition. Examples include: pro-life, pro-choice, Friends of the Earth, tax relief, tax burden, extremism, moderate, gridlock, loopholes, and Islamofascism.
Peter Himler points to the review and uses it to challenge the PR profession:
From the perspective of PR practitioners, e.g., those typically accused of creating unspeak, PRSA or some other industry organization should also lay down the gauntlet…to distance the industry from the Beltway spinmeisters who have increasingly tainted the profession. Honest advocacy does not have to be an oxymoron.
Clearly, if someone is trying to actually mislead an audience of readers, listeners, or viewers, that’s not right. But that’s different than carefully selecting words to convey an organization’s message, be it political or promotional. Dueling terms like pro-choice vs. pro-life and death tax vs. inheritance tax are not meant to mislead; rather, they clearly and honestly communicate the point of view of each side’s advocates.
One is not left to parse words for understanding with phrases such as these and to malign them as spin or even of questionable ethics would be misguided. We should fight against deceit, lies, and deception, but we ought not hamstring the ability of professionals to communicate honestly and effectively.