Weasel Words – More Ways to Know If Your Politicians’ Lips are Moving – In a civilized society words matter – Don Watson
My last two posts (Veracity Matters, I and II), listed 20 ways to know if your politicians’ lips are moving. Remember the joke? “How do you know if a politician is lying? His lips are moving!” This is way 21, a good number for the beginning of my political coming of age.
After eight years as a planning commissioner and city council member, I was elected mayor. As mayor, I was privy to information that had eluded me before. I had served on 16 boards in my government roles. Four of them were wide open to fraud. It kept me awake at night. How to reconcile the widespread fraud that my combined management consulting and government experience made it impossible to deny intellectually, but that my heart did not want to accept? We have a love affair with our community, and we cannot believe it is unfaithful. As part of my soul-searching, I asked a friend for his insight. He had left a successful law practice and leadership role in the Democrat party in Washington State to move to SLO County to practice law. Trusting his experience, perspective, and impartiality, I asked him, “Have I been wrong all my life in believing that most people are basically good, or is this place really bad?” He said no, I hadn’t been wrong all my life; our county is unusually corrupt. Then I asked, “Why?”
He said that in our county, the press euphemizes bad conduct, and most of us go along, making it OK. Instead of calling out bad behavior, we rationalize, “It’s not his fault; he’s from New Jersey.” We say “politics as usual” rather than demanding integrity. When we accept the weasel words, we hear from a speaker deflecting a question, hiding the truth, or avoiding blame, we authenticate the speaker’s story.
The phrase “weasel words” originates in rural lore that weasels can suck the insides out of an egg without damaging the shell. The egg, while looking fine on the outside, is empty and useless.
The expression first appeared in Stewart Chaplin’s short story “Stained Glass Political Platform” (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine) where weasel words were described as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell.” Theodore Roosevelt argued in 1916 that “one of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use …’ weasel words’; saying that when one ‘weasel word’ is used … after another there is nothing left”.
Weasel words are a verbal form of money laundering. We sanitize cheating by euphemizing it. We accept vague answers as we do dark money – political donations where the source is unclear. This way, we can look the other way; weasel out of the hard work of dealing with the truth — words matter. We use them to distance ourselves from something we do not like to protect ourselves from having to confront it. We allow our elected representatives and government staff to weasel. It is an unvoiced social agreement to give things a pass that should give us pause.
We believe the hollow claims of anonymous authorities when we trust “researchers believe” and “most people think.” We allow unnamed authorities so we can be “most people.” We want to trust researchers. It is easier not to probe.
Intimidated by not knowing, we let our government officials speak in circles, speak in long-winded technical terms, or speak in anagrams not realizing that our politicians, government staffers, and lawyers often do not get it either. As a planning commission chairperson and as a mayor, I proclaimed that we would have no linguistic chicanery; that each anagram would use the words the letters represent. I banned anagrams on the dais, saying they would be considered cusswords. That always drew a laugh. It also drew a line in the sand for transparency.
Sand is a sensitive subject when you live in the dunes, and government agency literature shifts and changes and covers its tracks as quickly as a weasel in the dunes. Historical descriptions of blowing sand speak wisdom, betraying more recent reports from one of our special Districts claiming the power to outwit mother nature and control the winds and the sea. The Bible, writ in a desert such as ours relays the vastness and heaviness of the sand of the sea, and the fate of the foolish man, “which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7.26). Before that, The Chumash, native to our area for twelve millennia called the valleys downwind of our 10,000year-old dune complex “The Valley of Sickness.”
In May 1861 William H. Brewer, Professor of Agriculture, Sheffield Scientific School elaborated, “The northwest wind from the Pacific draws up with terrible force. It would nearly sweep us from our mules— nothing could stand its force. The air was filled with dry dust and sand so that we could not see the hills at the sides, the fine sand stinging our faces like shot, the air as dry as if it had come from a furnace. Our lips cracked and bled, our eyes were bloodshot, and skins smarting.
In May 1998 the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District Air Quality Planning Manager, Larry Allen had a special way of saying “the air is bad and maybe you shouldn’t build houses in the dunes.” In a letter dated May 8th he supported the Biblical and Chumash wisdom in language more lost than Chumash and more archaic than the King James Bible, “Sensitive receptors in the project vicinity would be subject to adverse conditions resulting from increases in pollutant concentrations associated with the proposed project and pollutant concentrations projected for the area. As a result, emissions at project build-out would result in a significant unmitigable impact to air quality.”
When I first read the term “Sensitive Receptors,” I thought it must be the equipment used to measure air quality. Searching for quite some time to understand, I was disheartened to find that sensitive receptors are the human dune equivalent to canaries in the mine; they are “children, the elderly, the acutely ill, the chronically ill, especially people with cardio-respiratory diseases.” Sensitive receptors are those who would be especially susceptible to believe quackish health claims by politicians and special districts, that we can control the wind and the sand and the sea, and fix the health problems exacerbated by living downwind of one of the largest coastal dune complexes in the world. In a white paper on the issue, I titled one section, “Sensitive Receptors Are People.”(The West Mesa Dust Report – a white paper on Local Dust Emitters and Insufficient Mitigation Oversight Affecting the Western Nipomo Mesa by Debbie Peterson, 4/7/14)
For more on weasel words, check out Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, 2004. Author Don Watson says, “This book is a heavy weapon against politicians, managers and all those whose words kill brain cells and sink hearts, striking a much-needed blow for truth and clarity. Weasel words are the words of the powerful, the treacherous and the unfaithful, spies, assassins and thieves. Bureaucrats and ideologues love them. Tyrants cannot do without them. The Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984 is an invention, but also a satire on real states such as the Soviet Union where death from starvation and abuse … was recorded … as ‘failure of the heart muscle.’ Were any five words ever more melancholy than this?”
Watson could also have said that weasel words are bully words. Using “It is said,” or “It has been decided” without saying by whom implies authority. It is just one stumble away from the using color of authority to make illegal government actions appear legal, and no stumble off a lie. Passivists can acknowledge errors without naming those responsible, too – “Mistakes were made.” A popular intimidation lead-in, “It stands to reason” coerces compliance because most of us do not want to be seen to be unreasonable.
Weasel words include numerically vague expressions used instead of quantifiable measures. If done deliberately, it is “weaseling,” as in the words of our subsequently convicted sewer district administrator, and echoed by his cronies, “I am saving you so much money.” Really? How much? In comparison with what or who else? “The international community” is used in international politics to imply unanimity.
I use the term “Government Math” for a whole class of misnumerations. For example, discussing “Cumulative Effects” with no “cumulative.” This happens especially when developers and their politicians want to build a project in a water-depleted area. Each project uses the same figures – we have ‘x’ amount of water, so there is enough to go around. And then the next plan up for approval says the same, time after time. Or every project proposes to buy the same finite amount of water from the same limited source. It does not add up. One plus one plus one is not one. It is three. Only one person can drink one glass of water one time.
Three people cannot drink the same glass of water unless they split it three ways. Even if you buy one bottle of water, three people cannot drink that one bottle more than once. They are multiplying one times one times one equals one when they should be adding the use – one plus one plus one equals three, or more appropriately, subtracting – one minus one minus one equals negative two. Or after the one glass has been consumed, or the one bottle bought and emptied, zero times zero times zero equals zero. Zero plus zero plus zero equals zero. That is government math. Would you buy a home in a subdivision where the engineers or investors cannot do second-grade math? Well, not to worry. Those same developers and politicos count just fine when it comes to campaign donations, dark money, and extortion.
But let’s not ask questions because “we are all good people; let’s just get along.” Look the other way, folks, this is just “Business as Usual,” the insidious side of “We’ve always done it this way.” And anyway, “All is Fair in Love and War” because these are extenuating circumstances to which the usual rules of fair play do not apply.
What weasel words can you whack?
The Honorable Debbie Peterson (aka “The Weasel Whisperer) is the author of The California Cake & Cookie Cookbook and Great Scotswomen in Business. She served for 15 years as Mayor, Councilmember, and Planning Commissioner of a small town in California.