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Unspeak: Words Are Weapons Paperback – 1 Feb 2007
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A study of [UNSPEAK] is not just ttimely and welcome but (you'll feel once you've read this book) urgent. ...we should all be grateful to Steven Poole for his public spiritedness in undertaking it. Will someone please give him a medal, or a government office, or a slot on the radio with daily updates? (Claire Harman, EVENING STANDARD)
Poole has a sharp eye for hidden meanings and sub-texts. His account of politician s' addiction to the word "community" is a tour de force. By emphasising that one should always "look to the language", and going about his task with such forensic brio, Po (Francis Wheen, THE LIBERAL)
Steven Poole is to rhetorial doublespeak what the small boy was to the naked emperor: a pin to prick the speech bubbles (SUNDAY HERALD)
Steven Poole is to rhetorical doublespeak what the small boy was to the naked emperor: a pin to prick the speech bubbles . . . UNSPEAK sets out the case against, and also offers forensic analysis of, some of the most notorious examples he has found... UNSP (SCOTSMAN)
* The language of everyday deception stripped bareSee all Product description
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The book starts with some genuinely insightful and thought provoking analysis of political language. As the chapters progress, this is expanded upon with everything from "anti-social behaviour" to "ethnic cleansing" given a thorough analysis. I found the most interesting section was where he discussed how the military often use medical language (e.g. surgical strike) to describe their missions, and there were genuine moments in the book where you could find yourself saying "Never thought of that before!".
The first five chapters flow well, and whilst the author's political opinion is fairly clear by this stage, this doesn't matter to readers of any political persuasion, as he stays "on task" and keep the chapters focused on the book's title and purpose. Furthermore, these earlier chapters are characterised by an easy going, almost conversational style of writing that is easy to follow and digest.
However, there then follows three consecutive chapters that read more like a bitter rant than an analysis of political linguistic tricks, and this genuinely spoils the book, as the author veers both off course and off topic. There is nothing wrong with him holding his opinions, but this was not what the book was meant to be about. The writers tone also dramatically changes, at times bordering on sarcastic aggression and smugness. The final chapter does slightly rescue this as he returns to the topic, but only slightly.
In conclusion, the book presents some truly intriguing analysis of political language that is very useful to students of politics and social commentators. However, the "rant-a-thon" in the later part of the book takes him off course from the subject matter of the book, and this is what prevents me from giving it full marks.
Unspeak is about language and its use and miss-use in our present world by politicians, institutions and various institutional groups. The author is honest to admit in the Introduction that he "claim's no authority or expertise beyond a habit of close reading, practiced in literary journalism", so he is a layman giving his opinion, fine.
One difficulty I had with this book was reconciling it's core point with the necessary civilizing force of hypocrisy spoken widely about by others like Matthew Flinders in 'Defending Politics'. I would have thought that this new variant use of language or Unspeak is just part of the 'natural' evolution of hypocrisy. Basically it is about making everything sound nice and fluffy and good regardless of whether it is not. I thought about Barbara Ehrenreich's book 'Smile Or Die' and the distortion effect of excessive positive thinking on people while reading this.
Does the author honestly think that important aspects of public communication, like mass global telecommunications, could change without influencing the use of language traveling on those systems? Up until relatively recently the vast majority of the world's populous were land locked peasants, many, perhaps most of whom, would go their entire lives never even seeing their leader let alone hearing any of their speeches. Today that has completely changed. Poole should have said something on this important topic but he didn't.
This book covers all the favorite contemporary topics of discussion like abortion, Iraq, anti-social behavior, faith, tolerance, climate change, oil/energy, Israeli/Palestinian conflict, war on terror, ethnic cleansing, torture, regime change etc. There is particular emphasis on the Iraq war being the big thing of the time that his book was first published in 2006 but is already starting to seem a bit dated by 2013.
Maybe it is just me but the author makes some strange or perhaps naive observations about peoples' perceptions of the world. Stating evidence of a longer-term view within the US government that catastrophic global warming would enhance western hegemony the author infers that their thinking on this comes to the conclusion that this had best be kept secret from others by removing the term 'global warming' from a 2003 E.P.A. report. However my friends and I came this same conclusion back in college in 2000. Which is why I distinguish between local and global environmental concerns and take differing stances on them.
Some of details of this book are out of date and miss-leading if taken in current context. As an example the author mentions a 2005 interview between Trevor McDonald and George Bush in which according to a UN report pollution in the US had increased between amazingly since 1992. A report released recently has stated that pollution in the US has fallen considerably. The Chinese are quoted as saying that this was down to luck, I would say that it was down to delayed consequences.
Throughout the book there is an overwhelming focus on the US, with more than half of the examples of Unspeak taken from USA and nearly all the rest come from the rest of the Western world. This is a problem because the author never states that is a book specifically discussing the language of the Western World. The beginning opening chapter quotes a non-Western philosopher Confucius stating the problem proposed by the book and proposing a potential solution as seen by the author. This along with others things causes this book to reek of anti-western bigotry and this is a big part of the reason why it only gets two stars from me.
I would suggest this book to anyone entirely ignorant of dynamics of political and group speech dynamics, however I would not call it an exemplar of independence of thought by any margin as the author clearly brings his own bias to the work.