Friday, January 1, 2010

Lots of Potential

There's a word that has been getting used oddly of late -- I'm talking about the past few years here -- or maybe I just started noticing it. Here's a recent example, from an infomercial for full-body scanners pretending to be an Op-Ed in the Washington Post:
Since the uncomfortably close attempted attack on Northwest Flight 253 last week, many have focused on why the alleged terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not placed on a watch list that would have prevented him from flying, even though the government had received information that he was a potential extremist.
The word I have in mind is "potential," which first began irritating my delicate sensors when I encountered it in the phrase "potential hazard." A hazard is a risk, a source of danger, so "potential hazard" is redundant. But it's not just a redundancy, it's a piling on of qualifications. (It might conceivably be a possible risk of potential hazard.) I've noticed this sort of thing in other contexts, so I view it as one of the ways that people act on language. We add layers of complication in some areas, and truncate in others.

I found one of my favorite examples of this sort of protective work in The Follies of Globalisation Theory by Justin Rosenberg, published by Verso in 2000. It's one of the funniest things I've ever read in an academic book (granted, I have an unusual sense of humor). Rosenberg says of one of his targets that "Even the broad affiliation of his work to the camp of 'critical international theory arrives guarded by a seven-fold qualification, no less" (46-47), which he details in a note at the top of page 174.
I refer to the following statement ... , which I have italicized and annotated (in square brackets) in order to illustrate the point: 'Part [but only part] of my aim is to explore [but not necessarily endorse] some [but only some] of the implications [not the substance] of recent attempts [I won't say they've succeeded] to canvass [rather than establish] the possibility [let alone the substantive validity] of an explicitly critical attitude within the theory of international relations.' The remarkable quality of this sentence lies in the fact that the closer the reader approaches to the definitive phrase 'explicitly critical attitude', the further Walker himself has been distanced from it by the accumulating layers of qualifications.
Back to the Post infomercial. Whatever It Is, I'm Against It links to another Washington Post article which mentions that the writer, Michael Chertoff, has come under criticism because "the Chertoff Group, his security consulting agency, includes a client that manufactures the machines. The relationship drew attention after Chertoff disclosed it on a CNN program Wednesday, in response to a question."

I'm sure that the former Homeland Security secretary would never let pecuniary interest interfere with his dedication to the public good. What I also noticed was what followed "potential," namely "extremist." I suppose anybody is a potential extremist, and who gets to decide what "extremist" views render one dangerous on an airliner? Would this include the members of Teabag Nation? Pat Buchanan? Joe Liebermann? Physicians who disrupt a Congressional hearing to advocate a single-payer healthcare system? The thing about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is that he was (is?) an extremist, not a potential one, and his father had tried to alert US intelligence about this. If he was potentially anything before he acted, it was a terrorist; once he boarded Flight 253 with explosives concealed on his person, he was no longer potential but actual. I suppose "extremist" is being deployed by Chertoff simply as government/corporate doublespeak, the official language of the serious media.