Let’s hope Voltaire was wrong

“In characteristically self-effacing fashion, the fastest man in the world blamed his arch-rival Justin Gatlin for the crash.”

That comes to us out of a news article on Usain Bolt. My first thought on seeing it was, “This is what happens when writers don’t understand how words work.” “Self-effacing” would have meant blaming himself; what Bolt did was other-effacing. It’s easy enough to laugh it off and think, Hah, another boneheaded journalist, and get back to watching cat videos. (Disclosure: this blog approves of cat videos.)

But I wanted to think about it a little more. I asked myself, how would this happen? It’s from a British paper, so that makes it a bit harder for the typical sneering elitist to write it off with the typical elitist sneer. (Not that that will stop anyone; those who enjoy sneering will climb any mountain just to look down their noses at it.)

When I see bad writing, I don’t take it as an occasion to feel superior. Anyone who doesn’t understand how tragic this is should go read Richard Mitchell, slowly and carefully.

Consider it in its full context. This journalist works for a reputable paper. They don’t publish UFO conspiracies. The author is paid to understand how words work. He’s had an education. He’s paid to know what he’s writing. He’s paid to write things that are true.

If you read the rest of the story, you’ll see that the author has better-than-average fluency, despite the sloppy phrasing and disorganized paragraphs. You’ll also see nothing at all to support the bizarre claim that Usain Bolt is “characteristically self-effacing.” These are probably just words the author heard in some other context that gave him a warm fuzzy, so he wanted to pass along the same warm fuzzy to his readers. I find that appropriate, because “fuzzy” is the only state of mind that will get a reader through this article easily. Maybe he knows his readers. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.

Oh, relax, uptight media critic. Maybe the poor guy was coming up against a hard deadline and didn’t have time to be careful. Yes, perhaps, but does that excuse it? It doesn’t even explain it. He has editors who are paid a lot more than he is, because they are trusted to employ only writers who do understand how words work. It is their job to keep their journalists from writing gibberish; it is their livelihood, and their paper’s, to keep gibberish out of their newsprint.

So why would they conspire with a journalist to publish nonsense? Could it still be a momentary lapse? Simple carelessness? I might buy that, if I didn’t see this sort of thing all the damn time.

Or could it be that they have learned that sloppy, self-contradictory reporting doesn’t get noticed, and that they won’t be held accountable for it? Could it be that they have come to trust their readers — including the ones who do all that elitist sneering — to not understand how language works? Have they become confident in expecting that their noses will never be thrust by angry readers into the steaming piles their writers have dropped onto their newspaper, instead of out on the back lawn where it belongs?

That’s why I don’t think it’s funny. Didn’t Voltaire say something clever about people who believe absurdities? What do you suppose he would have said about an educated public that has grown numb to the difference between absurdity and sense?

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