Does epidemic of ‘scare quotes’ threaten a civil society?
June 16, 2013 | 2:22 pm
By Dan Bloom
In the long run-up to the last American presidential election, an epidemic of so-called “scare quotes” almost turned political punditry and commentary by those on the left and right into a mockery of democracy and liberty. It’s happening still now with news commentaries and op-eds on both sides of the fence about abortion issues, the NSA brouhaha and gun control, among other things.
I feel that the epidemic of scare quotes not only threatens to infect and undermine the entire political process of this country, but it is also invading the religious realm as well. Maybe we should stop the excessive use of scare quotes?
When someone on the left or right doesn’t like the language of the opposing side, the writer often chooses to puts the word, or words, in scare quotes, to signal to the reader that he or she is of a very different opinion, and as a result, nothing gets resolved and only more confusion and noise results.
When a writer is writing about various religions issues and ‘platforms’ (see, I just used a scare quote to give you an example of how it can be used!), he or she often resorts to the scare quotes methodology to score points with those who already agree, or to mock those he or she dislikes on the other side of the pulpit.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, writing last year for a blog known as GetReligion, put it this way in her headline (note the scare quotes in the middle): “Scare quote epidemic spreads to ‘natural’ family planning”
Ziegler Hemingway wrote that an editor she knows “with many years in the business sent along the latest example of the odd use of scare quotes—although he called them “smear quotes.”
She explained that the example came from the Religion News Service, which had recently sent out an article with the headline, “Amid political battle, Catholic bishops promote ‘natural’ family planning.”
When the same article ran in the Huffington Post, she noted, it had the headline, “Catholic Bishops Promote ‘Natural’ Family Planning Amid Battle Over Contraception Mandate,” with the loaded word “natural” in the ubiquitous and ill-coined ”scare quotes” term now embedded in newsroom cultures of both conservatives and liberals alike.
She noted that the article began this way: “Amid a battle with President Obama over a new contraception mandate, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are promoting ‘natural’ family planning – but will their flock take heed?”
Ziegler Hemingway also noted that when she first pointed out ”the rather curious scare quote policy of Religion News Service (in which ‘religious liberty’ was getting the treatment), we got some messages defending it. From RNS contributor Mark Silk we were told “the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the ‘defenders’ may actually be up to something else.”
Silk suggested that the true motivation of people advocating for religious liberty was partisan. And RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom backed this up, telling GetReligion that, “there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.”
You get the message, I think. The epidemic of scare quotes is turning America into a culture of name-calling, scare-quote throwing shouters.
Scare quotes now appear regularly in once scare-quote-free publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention even here at TeleRead.
America, both left and right, has gone ”scare quotes” crazy. And no one has ever really defined what a “scare quote” actually is, who coined it, or when or why. I found an early reference to the term in a 1946 book about California by Upton Sinclair. So it’s not a new term. It may have been coined as early as the late 1800s in Britain, according to online sources.
So how to stop the epidemic in America and Britain? A syndicated “B.C.” comic strip in the daily newspapers in 2012 said it well. We are living now in a culture where liberals and conservatives drink water at separate water fountains in the park, the cartoonist implied—sarcastically, of course, as he is a cartoonist—one labeled “Conservatives Only” and the other labelled “Liberals Only.”
This kind of scare quotes ”scare-mongering” must be contained somehow, or the contagion will only get worse.
When a simple three-panel comic strip tells Americans to wake up and look at what the ”shouters” are doing to our political and religious culture, it’s time for us all to wake up. No more separate drinking fountains. We are one people, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. No?
Disagree with each other if you want to, dear pundits of the left and right. But without the scare quotes, please.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan.