Thursday, September 30, 2010

Words I Do and Do Not Use

I discuss political language on this blog from time to time. Mandatory reading for any student of political language are Politics and the English Language by George Orwell and Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff.

Politics and the English Language is a relatively short essay written in 1946. Penguin Books sells a small book called Why I Write by Orwell that contains it. You can probably find the whole thing online, too, but I'm not going to look for you. Orwell basically argues that political language is used to hide something, rather than explain something.

The perfect example of this that you might be familiar with would be the phrase "revenue generating" that is being bandied about the CNMI these days. Revenue generating isn't actually about generating revenue, it is about raising taxes. The first person I heard talk about revenue generating was Joe Camacho during his time in the 16th Legislature. Now nearly all of the elected officials in the CNMI are banging on the revenue generating drum. Somehow "slush-fund generating" doesn't have the same ring to it.

Now when you hear Don't Think of an Elephant, what do you think of? If you said Megan Fox, then you obviously think Michael Bay is a talented director and deserve to die. Most people would answer, an elephant. Lakoff explains how the human mind thinks in frames and metaphors and how the specific language that we use has implications in how our minds understand the world.

Using the example of "revenue generating" again, revenue and generating, taken on their own are positive words. Most people like the idea of revenue. That's money coming in, making it possible for you to feed your family and make your mortgage. Generating is also a positive word. Generating is making something. Making things is good. Put them together, regardless of their true meaning, and people get a warm fuzzy feeling, even if revenue generating is really about tax increases and less money in the pockets of businesses and workers.

With that short intro to my totally unqualified lesson, let me explain how my language has changed as an environmentalist, both as a policy wonk and as a para-biologist.

I do not use the word pristine.

In 2009 I traveled to the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. When I landed on Maug I was greeted with marine debris, derelict fishing gear, and waters that were supposedly pristine, but in truth no where near their historical abundance. If Maug is not pristine, there is no place on the planet that is pristine. That is a sobering thought, that humans have damaged every single corner of the earth.

When I hear people use the word pristine, I cringe. I heard it used to describe Saipan during the Coral Reef Task Force earlier this month. I'm sorry, but with most of the island's beaches closed due to red flags most of the year, pristine is something long gone from these shores.

I do not use the phrase shark-infested waters.

Once upon a time there were shark infested waters. And then the 1.3 billion people in China turned their country into the second largest economy on the planet. The wealthy and powerful middle class in China marks all important occasions with a $100 bowl of shark fin soup. Unfortunately for sharks, China has more rich and powerful middle class people than the United States has people. Shark populations, as a result, have been obliterated. All the big sharks are heading towards extinction, and fast.

I do not use the word decimated.

You will often hear people say that the fish populations around the world have been decimated. Well, the fish have not been decimated. Decimated refers to a reduction of 10% (deci- means ten). The loss of fish has been much worse than 10%. Since 1950, 90% of all the big fish in the ocean have been eaten by the great hairless apes. If only the fish had been decimated, there might still be a lot of fish. As unbelievable as it may sound, some species of fish, like bluefin tuna and several species of shark, are actually heading towards extinction.

Speaking of extinction, I do use the word extinction.

In my lifetime, species in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have gone extinct. Extinct is forever and forever is a very long time. I predict that (if nothing is done) the Marianas fruitbat and nightingale reed warbler will go extinct within my lifetime. Bats have already been extirpated from Saipan, and the only time individuals show up is when they fly over from the other islands. The populations in the Northern Islands are probably a fraction of what they were 20 years ago and it is only a matter of time until the last one is dropped into a boiling pot of coconut milk.

I do use the phrase natural heritage

There are cultural implications in environmental protection. As an indigenous Chamorro, part of how I self-identify is attached to the island of Saipan and the surrounding ocean. A world with fruit bats, coconut crabs, and abundant reef fish is central to the Chamorro culture. Most Chamorro men identify themselves as fishermen or farmers, even lawyers serving on the Supreme Court (I know this from personal experience). When the local government does not enforce the environmental laws of the CNMI and allows continued degradation of the CNMI's natural resources, that has an effect on my cultural relationship with the island, changing my culture for the worse. Furthermore, the handful of guys poaching fruitbats and turtles, burning hillsides, killing endangered Napoleon wrasse for sport, and dumping their household trash in public places, are denying unborn generations of indigenous Chamorros and Carolinians the foundation on which their culture was created, their natural heritage.