The Unfortunate Obfuscation of Verbal Shortcuts

Vox’s goal of “explaining the news” is laudable, and I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the pieces I’ve read so far. But I have one very specific nit to pick, which I’m going to unfairly use as emblematic of a larger issue in American political discourse.*

This is from Zack Beuchamp’s Benghazi explainer:

The attack spawned a still-ongoing investigation led by Congressional Republicans and conservative media, who worry that the Obama administration has self-servingly distorted the truth of what happened and who see the incident as evidence of their long-running concerns that the administration is weak on terrorism.

“Weak on terrorism”. It’s one of those phrases like “tough on crime” or “strong on jobs” that shows up repeatedly in political journalism, and it means nothing. It gives the reader no sense of what the politician’s actual policies might be, what the goals of those policies might be, or if there’s any connection between the two. If you’re a politician, this is excellent, because it means you don’t have to actually explain what you might do in office, and if the label sticks it leaves your opponent in something of a jam; he or she by default becomes “weak on crime”, and what kind of pansy-assed idiot would be that?**

To be fair, this sort of conceptual shorthand isn’t malicious, and it’s a useful verbal shortcut; nobody wants to have to regurgitate an entire policy document every time a politician’s position on prisons comes up. It’s much easier to say she’s, “tough on crime” and have a general sense of the universe of positions that might encompass. I’ve never written for a newspaper, but I imagine operating that way is especially useful if you are since column space is limited.

Catherine Baker, author of a book I have not yet, but would very much like to read, discusses the same phenomenon here in the context of, “how we narrate and arrange history”:

Starting to draft this book has thrown up some interesting theoretical questions…which I’d quite like to explore further after the book itself is done. One thing the reader needs to be able to understand is anti-essentialist approaches to nationalism and ethnicity, which in many ways inform a lot (though clearly not all) of the more recent research. It makes a difference to say that ‘the Croats’, as opposed to let’s say ‘the Croatian Democratic Union’ or ‘the President of Croatia’ or ‘the inhabitants of Dubrovnik’ or ‘the 1st Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army’, did something, perhaps especially when talking about war. I want to avoid my own writing reinforcing collectivist assumptions, but I also want the reader to be able to see why it makes a difference and what some of the implications of those different kinds of description might be. All of this takes words, and I don’t have many. It’s simply easier to say that ‘the Croats’ or ‘Croatia’ did this or that; expressing something more complex in the same level of brevity is much more difficult.

On the printed page especially it’s not clear there’s a good solution. You can’t print a one billion page book, and you can’t print newspaper articles with footnotes, and at some point you run into some serious physical limitations. On the web, you’re only limited by your stamina as a writer, the degree to which you think you can hold the audience’s attention (admittedly, that might not be very long; the Internet is a fickle audience), and perhaps your own skill in putting together something that’s still coherent after all the appropriate qualifications and specifications and levels of detail have been added.

Which is why it was a little disappointing to see a Vox article using a verbal shortcut like “weak on terrorism”, even if it’s being used to describe somebody else’s criticisms. Not only are they absent physical space constraints, the whole point (or so it seems) of the site’s presentation style and approach to content seems purposely designed to avoid having to use exactly that kind of empty phrase. In the future, hopefully “weak on terrorism” at least gets replaced with a link to a card stack about the Obama Administration’s terrorism policy.

*Unfair in that it’s one instance out of a much longer and well-executed article
**Probably that is a whole other sociological question in itself; maybe in other countries (Norway, Sweden?) there is not such a visceral political need to be “tough on crime”. Maybe you could win an election with a platform of, “data-driven parole programs designed to reduce recidivism and foster social reintegration for criminals!” I mean, I would vote for that, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring as, “Lock ’em all up!”