The Perils of Bad Writing

9 September 2007

The Case of MB

On 25 November 2006, a Montreal blogger posts the following on his site. Although many of us know exactly who the characters involved are, because of the subsequent legal action I’ve decided it’s best to remove the names. Our Montreal blogger will be referred to below as MB.

Howdy! According to this article, a guy named [A] was in business with [B], who tried to sell some fake paintings to Loto-Quebec. Because of him, a bunch of different police forces here in Canada started to investigate the Mafia for something like five years, and resulted in them arresting a gazillion and a half people on Thursday. This might even be a better story than [C].

This was basically a link-out to an article in the National Post which had been published the day before. The article was about A, a car dealer who police claimed was involved with a crime family. Word on the street had it that B was a business partner with A, and that A had stolen paintings from B, as B is a gallery owner. B was actually in business with A’s wife, not A himself.

The subsequent legal action mentioned above was that B sued MB for defamation, because of the above post. Let’s read it again:

According to this article, a guy named [A] was in business with [B], who tried to sell some fake paintings to Loto-Quebec.
According the National Post article, A was in business with B, and B tried to sell some fake paintings to Loto-Quebec. This relates to an even older story from 2003, and is of little consequence here. The defamation in question comes about in the following sentence:
Because of him, a bunch of different police forces here in Canada started to investigate the Mafia for something like five years, and resulted in them arresting a gazillion and a half people on Thursday.
By beginning his sentence with ‘Because of him’ the implication is that he’s referring to the last person named in the previous statement (B) when in fact he’s referring to A. This leads to the legal action, which is initiated in April, when Mr. MB received the first cease-and-desist notification, which apparently asked for the post to be corrected, clarified, or deleted.

My sense is that complying would have been reasonable, except that MB got his back up about it all and ended up deleting his blog. All because of an unclear sentence structure, and the use of the controversy for a relentless self-promotion campaign of interviews with mainstream media organizations.

Fueled by claims of censorship and a lack of free speech, the angle was always that of the little guy being bullied by people with enough money to afford to drag the matter before the courts. This publicity simply exacerbated the situation.

Again, this is simply the result of bad writing, and the real lesson here is not one of censorship, but that one should be clear about one’s references. MB was simply trying to summarize something that had been published by a national newspaper, but in doing so implied not only an association with the party being investigated by police, but the actual offenses supposedly perpetrated by that person. B had every right to ask for the posting to be clarified or deleted.


A book has now been published as a manual for email, and in it’s review, Janet Malcolm quotes the following examples, described as the correspondence between an executive ‘at a large American company in China’ and his secretary:
You locked me out of my office this evening because you assume I have my office key on my person. With immediate effect, you do not leave the office until you have checked with all the managers you support.

To which the secretary replied:

I locked the door because the office has been burgled in the past. Even though I’m your subordinate, please pay attention to politeness when you speak. This is the most basic human courtesy. You have your own keys. You forgot to bring them, but you still want to say it’s someone else’s fault.

Her reply was cc’d to everyone in the company. ‘Before long,’ write Malcolm, ‘the exchange appeared in the Chinese press and led to the executive’s resignation’.

I’m glad to see the executive ended up losing his position, not the secretary. But again, this is the result of bad writing. The executive was probably ignorant of the tone he was conveying with his sentences. His use of the word ‘you’ four times, and the condensation of his instructions into two sentences comes across as curt and unfeeling. The secretary reads it as such, and accuses him of being impolite.

The executive, having risen to the top of ‘a large American company’ must be well versed in the technocratic language of our time. His secretary made the reasonable assumption that he had the wherewithal to carry his own keys, and I’m making the assumption that he’s illiterate – not in the sense that he cannot read or write, but in the sense that he’s not conscious of the effect of his (or the) written word. But then again, one email is not enough to go on for that conclusion: he may have been having a bad day, he may have already been angry about something else, he may have had a company wide reputation for being an asshole to begin with and so on.

Another example from the review clearly implies an additional executive in question is an asshole:

In this case, the secretary spilled ketchup on the boss’s trousers, and he wrote an email asking for the £4 it cost to have the trousers cleaned (the company was a British law firm). Receiving no reply, he pursued the matter. Finally he—and hundreds of people at the firm—received this email:

Subject: Re: Ketchup trousers

With reference to the email below, I must apologize for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother’s sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your £4.

I apologize again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary.

Having already spoken to and shown your email…to various partners, lawyers and trainees…, they kindly offered to do a collection to raise the £4.

I however declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for the £4, it will be on my desk this afternoon. Jenny.

Considering my subject here is what is conveyed by writing, I want to point out that both of these examples convey that the top of the corporate pyramid is inhabited by less-than-human individuals, both male, and both wanting to defer responsibility to their female underlings. One could have clearly carried his keys, while the other could have clearly afforded to cover the cost of cleaning his pants. It is precisely this type of basic inconsideration which fuels the protests against globalized capitalism.

Do Not Consume

My third example comes from a story reported last spring, in which Health Canada attempted to warn people not to drink the water on certain Native reservations. (I’m disgusted by the need to write that sentence, btw: ‘bad water on native reservations’. What century am I living in?)

As reported on the CBC website in May:

Health Canada says it plans to revamp its communication strategy about drinking water in aboriginal communities after finding out that its warning ads are not working.Federal Health Minister Tony Clement said Thursday a study has found that its public service announcements, which come in the form of signs and posters, are not clear or effective. “You live and learn in these things,” Clement said in Ottawa.

Because it was too hard to write, ‘Don’t drink the water’ (that would have been too human, too unprofessional) the signs were written thus:

Do Not Consume Advisory

‘According to the study,’ (study!) CBC reported, ‘residents did not know if the sign referred to their tap water or if the advisory was just a suggestion’.

This links back to the example of the executive in China. Corporate language has to be cold, unfeeling, imprecise, technical. The technical aspect is the most important, because it conveys the delusion that one is scientific, and as John Ralston Saul argued with Voltaire’s Bastards, we live within the social cult of Reason. Everything should be as emotionless as an equation.Saul wrote in The Unconscious Civilization (p. 48-49):

In a corporatist society there is no serious need for traditional censorship or burning, although there are regular cases. It is as if our language itself is responsible for our inability to identify and act upon reality.

(Think of how MB is complaining of being censored, when he apparently couldn’t see how his sentence structure could be so misconstrued).

I would put it this way. Our language has been separated into two parts. There is public language – enormous, rich, varied and more or less powerless. Then there is corporatist language, attached to power and action.

(Do Not Consume Advisory)

Corproratist language itself breaks down into three types. Rhetoric, propaganda and dialect. […] For the moment let’s concentrate on dialects. Not the old-fashioned regional dialects, but the specialized, inward looking verbal mechanisms (I’m avoiding the word language because they are not language; they do not communicate) of the tens of thousands of monopolies of fractured knowledge. These are what I would call the dialects of the individual corporations. The social science dialects, the medical dialects, the science dialects, the linguist dialects, the artist dialects. Thousands and thousands of them, purposely impenetrable to the non-expert, with thick defensive walls that protect each corporation’s sense of importance. […]

The reliance on specialist dialects, indeed the requirement to use [them], has become a universal condition of our contemporary elites. …

But the core of the disease is perhaps to be found in the social sciences. These often well-intentioned, potentially useful false [emp mine] sciences feed the dialects of the public and private sectors. […] Economists, political scientists and sociologists in particular have attempted to imitate scientific analysis through the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, but above all, through their parodies of the worst of the scientific dialects. As in business and governmental corporations, the purpose of such obscure language could be reduced to the following formula: obscurity suggests complexity which suggests importance.

Obscurity suggests complexity which suggests importance: Don’t Drink the Water.

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