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Against the spin ... how about language reform, too?

By Torrey Orton - posted Tuesday, 8 April 2008

We live in times of more information, ease of access to it and less truth than ever. As I do my various works I find myself caught in this dilemma as do my friends and clients. My work is clarification with individuals, groups and organisations through psycho-therapy, coaching, group facilitating, training and just plain talk. This is mainly language work and it gets harder and harder as our capacity to describe declines with a declining public vocabulary - the embedded vocabulary and syntax of spin.

For example:

Mercy Ministries staff address the issues that the residents face from a holistic client-focused approach; physical, mental, emotional. The program is voluntary and all aspects are explained comprehensively to the residents and no force is used. Executive manager of programs, Judy Watson in The Age (March 17, 2008).


Take out the “Mercy Ministries” and you have a description of all manner of well-being establishments operating on diverse, if not opposed, underlying philosophies and practices. Try the language of our governments on health, education, transport ...

I know I am not alone in this plaint. The Age business back page has a spin editor (David James) every week or so, and opinion articles and letters to the editor ring with calls for straight speaking, real FOI, unscripted public interchanges.

Don Watson says of this world “It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless”. (Death Sentence, pg. 3).

My concern is that we may have moved on to a point where we are no longer so offended by its intentional meaninglessness. We have become comfortable with it, taking it for meaning and resisting facts or feelings which conflict with our comfort. This may be one source of some of the spontaneous childish rage reported daily in the press.

Explicit in Watson’s work, and implicit in some commentators (Sean Carney and Mungo MacCallum, Paul Krugman, George Will and others in the US and UK), the main danger of weasel words is loss of public truth. We are seeing this loss in a number of public language domains - international (the “war on terror”), environment, economy, education, health and so on.

The “facts” are often reported within oppositional intellectual frames - “left” and “right”- which preceded them. And what cannot be disavowed to the responsibility of others (the Opposition, and so on) is veiled in spin.


I look forward to the major news outlet which explicitly attempts to present the full picture that any particular event inhabits. What it would look like to do so will be the subject of another article, but a sketch is provided later here.

Correcting spin is a moral/political guts issue. Reducing weasel words is a personal discipline and caring for your message issue. They overlap of course. The distinction between public and private language is important, since it is in the spaces between them that new public expressiveness and expressions can emerge.

For example, the commercialised worldview which occupies the public expression of most contemporary Anglophone organisations is well understood by the denizens of such organisations to be window dressing, if not deception with intent. So, there’s a naturally occurring potential resistance movement cooking quietly in the institutional underbrush (public and private sector): people want to engage but are wary of the next “change” in the continuous improvement/increasing productivity cycles to which we are repeatedly subject.

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About the Author

Torrey Orton is a psychologist practising in organisational and personal change across cultures - specifically Anglo, French and Chinese - through businesses in Melbourne and Shanghai.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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