I HAVE attended a half dozen or so European Union press events over the past year, most of which have taken place in Brussels, and I am struck each time by the sums of money spent and the dribble of material actually presented. It is near impossible to sit through them without wavering between sanctimony, hilarity and despair. There may be a few among the veteran press core who – due to mind-numbing years of exposure to bureaucratic babble – approach these events with the same solemnity of the event organizers. But most reporters consider them shams, though they do so only in private. There are never headlines the next day that read, “EU spends quarter million on tea and cookies” or “Nothing said in two days of jargon.”
Instead the reporters dutifully scour the remotest depths of the non-event – a vital skill for press conference journalists – to patch together something that might be passed off as a notable news story. Or they corner one of the politicians and hope that, under intensive and relentless one-on-one questioning, the protective shield of jargon might be knocked aside long enough for a sentence or two to escape that posseses a shade of meaning.
Of course, it is the reporters, with their conspiracy of silence, who allow politicians to get away with language murder. After all, at press events it is the job of politicians, not reporters, to reveal as little as possible while giving the impression that a great deal has been said. But part of the reason no journalists protest these events is because they are treated to such a kingly reception. At no cost to you or your newspaper (at least for EU events) you are flown out to another country, put up in a hotel whose nightly rate might run in the hundreds of euros, and treated from start to finish to a parade of luncheons, cocktail parties and dinners. To bring attention to the fact that the emperor is naked might jeopardize any future flights, four-star hotels, and finger food.
The following two excerpts are selected more or less at random from EU press conference speeches: “The policy is ambitious since it aims at promoting convergence and territorial cohesion through innovation and competitiveness” … “I agree and I am certain that a more intensive use of private-public partnerships is key to the conservation and valorization of our heritage.”
There is nothing ungrammatical about these sentences and yet after reading them, let alone hearing them, one is left with an unsettled sense of having learned nothing. Ornamental phrases like ‘valorization of our heritage’ (a phrase often bandied about despite its incomprehensibility) and darling terms like ‘convergence’ or ‘territorial cohesion’ pepper speeches because, though they sound professional and high-minded, they are also vague enough to ensure that discussion remains safely in the ethereal skies of rhetoric, far from the frightening realities of the real world below.
Vague and stale speech – which is both the cause and result of sloppy thinking – is not limited to government bureaucrats. One can find it most anyplace where influential people congregate. The less educated often glaze over in hotel conference rooms because they have not been sufficiently initiated into the art of bullshit to appreciate the subtleties of garbled diction. It is not an exaggeration to say that at least 95 percent of talk in conference rooms is hot air. One must go to less respectable places like the pub – with its booze-fueled intolerance for bombast and pretence – to find people who do not sound like they are channeling deadly bores from other dimensions.
One of my more memorable New York City jobs involved a two-week stint as a temp in the Macy’s fashion marketing department. My job was to write up meeting summaries of the upcoming ‘Fall Lineup’ fashion presentations. During the meetings, clothing articles were introduced (“the Fall cashmere series is projected to be a $7.5 million trade, we’re very excited about it”) and passed around among the executives, who would make mundane comments and recommendations, which I had no trouble summing up. But when I passed in my first summary, my supervisor had me rewrite it in convoluted “professional” form using superfluous polysyllabic words, often with ‘-ize’ and ‘-ion’ endings. She wanted bloated sentences full of gas. It was obvious she had never made any effort to understand the content of the jargon she used in her daily memos. But I soon saw that that the meaninglessness was part of its charm. Since it was all empty jabber, neither she nor anyone else in the department could ever be accused of making a mistake.
Depending on the subject of a particular press conference, the rhetoric lies somewhere between the shameless euphemisms of military talk and the junk vocabulary of corporate jargon. Because so much of big business comes down to the ancient practice of profiting off other people’s work, a special terminology is required to give the impression that what is actually taking place is a complex and sophisticated activity. An example: “We really want to leverage and monetize our synergy with this new initiative but there’s a disconnect in terms of our reorg.” Phrases like ‘thought leader,’ ‘cutting edge practices,’ ‘adding value,’ ‘enhanced output,’ ‘core values’ and ‘core competencies’ are characteristic of business speak.
Likewise, much of New Age jargon – with its own darling terms like ‘synchronicity,’ ‘serendipity,’ and ‘interconnectivity’ and its gooey talk about opening up the heart and unleashing the child within – serves as a similar kind of smokescreen. The siren vision of a benevolent universe and suffering-free life offers the troubled soul a slew of ‘mind, body, and spirit’ workshops, ‘inner healing sessions’, and other such transcendental services in exchange for a small fee (“exchanging energy” as some gurus on the receiving end of the exchange call it).
Unlike corporate and New Ageist jargon, which tries to give the mirage impression that a lot is happening, military language seeks to downplay facts by sugarcoating them. Hence phrases like ‘collateral damage’ (civilian death), ‘regime change’ (violent overthrow of government), ‘antipersonnel weapon’ (weapons for killing people), ‘engaging the enemy’ (shooting at other young men), ‘smart bombs’ (bombs with guided systems to ensure they inflict maximum destruction), ‘Defense Department’ (called Department of War prior to World War II), ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ (initially termed ‘Operation Iraqi Liberation’ until officials realized the acronym was O.I.L.) and the most poetic of them all, ‘theatre of combat,’ one of the rare euphemisms that illuminates more than it obfuscates, alluding as it does to the drama of war, with its behind-the-scenes playwrights and underpaid actors.
In 1947 H.L. Mencken wrote, “All the great villainies of history from the murder of Abel onward, have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.” Few press conferences achieve notoriety as villainies – in fact most do not make it beyond the level of glorified bullshit – but Mencken’s assertion still applies to the bulk of them. Without sober speakers and a sober audience, the disciplined façade of most press events would at once crumble.
So the question then arises: what if the speakers and audience were drunk, or at least tipsy? A few strong drinks would surely go a long way to purging much of the claptrap. Who, after several whiskey and sodas, could stand up in public and say, “To conclude, the most important form of integration is the spirit of togetherness. The people understand each other and they build an awareness of togetherness.” And who, with a sensible dose of alcohol running through the veins, could hold a straight face on hearing it?
(That, by the way, was a quote from the European Commissioner of Multilingualism during the European Day of Languages. The event, appropriately enough, celebrates “linguistic diversity and the benefits of being able to speak another language,” something the Commissioner certainly has a knack for.)
Let us refer to this proposed solution for eliminating jargon from press conferences as booze therapy. The alcohol could be administered any number of ways. Vodka could replace the standard bottled water on the tables. Or a glass of spiked punch, the first of several of course, could be handed to participants as they entered the conference room. Though a costlier option, a full bar would satisfy a diversity of personal tastes and would especially suit EU meetings for obvious transnational and multicultural reasons.
Consider the therapy. A high-level official, buzzing under the influence of several margaritas, may suddenly discover upon turning on her microphone that her pre-planned speech – two pages of unremitting jargon – is patently absurd. She will then either have to try communicate the content in everyday, albeit slurred, language, or resign herself to the fact that the subject is so sterile that there is no point for her or anyone else to waste any more time on it. Considering the bustling condition of modern life and the prevailing economic view that every minute is a precious commodity to be fully exploited, few would oppose the timesaving results.
As with all good things, booze therapy is not without risks. Most officials rely on jargon like a blind man relies on a walking stick. When deprived of their seeing instrument (which doubles for them as a crutch) some of them may undergo a crisis of belief, their past press conferences suddenly flashing before their mind’s eye in successive babbling incoherence. Since such psychological strain is preferably experienced in private settings rather than in a roomful of journalists, an element of discomfort is unavoidable, although the alcohol may help ease the rockiness of the ride, something that lifelong drinkers swear is one of its most compelling and notable qualities. One can only hope that the press, which will anyway be in good humor thanks to the unique method of therapy, will be tactful enough not to report any of the intimate details.
In order to ensure that the press conference does not degenerate into another cocktail party, those participants who are unable to handle their BAC levels in a professional manner should be cut off at once from further consumption. If their presence continues to disrupt the proceedings, then in a polite but non-negotiable manner they will be escorted out of the room to a volunteer counselor booth, where a trained professional will outline with multimedia aids the ground rules and overarching philosophy of booze therapy, after which, pending satisfactory completion of a brief oral exam, they may return to the press conference.
Amorous activity of any sort within the conference room or adjoining hall will be strictly prohibited. Those whose rising libidinal mood continues to distract them from the presentation at hand can take their passions to the nearest bathroom individually or in groups of no more than three at a time.
Booze therapy is specifically designed to bring clarity and sense to press conference proceedings. But since the news presented is ultimately aimed not at journalists but at society itself, or at least at that dispersed and more or less myopic group of people known as the wider reading public (for reasons of diminishing time and motivation, the wider viewing public will have to be addressed another time), we must also consider the conditions under which the articles are written. Although the state of one’s motor senses bears more influence upon driving than on writing, it should be noted that alcohol, even when taken in moderate doses, causes significant swellings and contractions of mood that for better or worse can lead, among other upheavals, to narrative and stylistic coups in the writing, especially in essays and other forms of persuasive literature, which traditionally demand a clear-headed authorial voice that can be relied upon throughout the essay’s duration, much as one can rely upon a faithful dog for the duration of its life, assuming it does not go rabid, although one hopes that the essayist is more contemplative in nature than the dog, or at least less apt to drop everything for a dried bone. Alcohol affects each writer in a unique way, although the steady decline of inhibition does lead to one universal effect, namely that the author loses a tight rein over the writing, which like a freshly captured wild beast that awakens to find itself in a cage will seek to burst free of its grammatical straightjacket and slip out from under the author’s controlling hand, an act of insubordination that if successful will result in the sacrifice of poise and authority for gusto and inventiveness, not necessarily a bad thing. In short, if such an opening phrase can still be made after the last few sentences, while booze therapy is recommended without reservation during press conferences, prior and present experiments involving alcohol consumption during the act of writing offer mixed and controversial results, which suggests it should be up to the personal discretion of the writer to decide, hopefully in an honest and critical manner, whether or not it is a good idea to drink and write.
- The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part II)
- The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part I)
- Advice to Passengers
- Egész Seggedre