Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Beck, Racism, and the Importance of Commas

Apparently, some advertisers (33 at last count) have started pulling their spots from Glenn Beck's show on the Fox network after he said that President Obama is a racist "with a deep-seated hatred for white people." In a surprising twist, even after his network tried to distance itself from his remarks, Beck himself did not and used his radio show to tell why he actually believes that. You can find out more about the whole story via Yahoo.

Although it is refreshing to see that a talking head didn't immediately go into Infinite Apology mode after being called on a controversial remark, it's sad that the issue he (or anyone) has chosen to stand behind is calling our President a racist. Personally, I think the word racist has been overused and misused so much over the last couple decades that it no longer really means the same thing that it meant, say, 25 years ago.
The Internet's ability to bring together people from all over the world in a raceless, classless way may have something to do with that.

Calling someone a racist today, it seems to me, is approximately the same as calling someone a communist back in the 50s. It's used to shame, to shock, and to denounce without actually holding any inherently important information. Not that I think that racism has disappeared. We can only dream. But people have cried racist so often and so flippantly that it no longer rallies the villagers like it ought to.

But that isn't the crux of what I wanted to bring up here on Logophilius. What struck me is a quote from UPS spokesman Rich Hallabran. He stated that UPS had temporarily stopped buying ad space on the Fox network as a whole, not just from Beck's show and not (necessarily) because of Beck's remarks. But he said it in an odd way -- or the AP reporters who heard him wrote it in an odd way. According to the Yahoo report, Hallabran said that the decision to pull commercials "should not be interpreted as we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox." I had to read this statement three times before it made sense.

The phrase "should not be interpreted as" is pretty common. (It yields over 17.5 million hits on Google.) It's normally used in the structure "X should not be interpreted as Y," meaning that, upon reading X, you might interpret X to mean or cause Y, but you shouldn't do that. For example, here are a smattering of selections from the first page of Google hits
  • Survey Suggests Results of Election Should Not Be Interpreted As A Tax Revolt
  • The Auchentoshan content located on this Auchentoshan Site should not be interpreted as financial or investment advice...
  • Association should not be interpreted as causation without additional evidence.
  • References to other mutual funds should not be interpreted as an offer of these securities
So when I read that UPS's decision "should not be interpreted as. . . ," I was expecting something like "should not be interpreted as an official stance on Beck's comments." I was thrown (at least twice) when something completely different, and seemingly ungrammatical, appeared in its place: " . . . should not be interpreted as [we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox]."

I realized that this statement was probably read aloud and not put in print, so at first I figured that the AP reporters had perhaps left out some false starts, or an uh or um as Hallabran collected his thoughts in the middle of a sentence. With that in mind, the statement meant exactly the opposite of what he was trying to say, to wit, that we shouldn't think that UPS's current actions mean that they are permanently withdrawing advertising from Fox. In fact, they are pulling their advertising from Fox. What he was trying to say is that you shouldn't interpret -- apparently at all -- because they had made a separate decision to permanently withdraw advertising from Fox.

If I had written the statement, I would have used because instead of as. In my limited exposure to legalese, though, I sense a hesitancy to use the word because in any legal document. I presume because because implies a direct causal relationship between an act and its (alleged) result, whereas as can be interpreted as (ba-dump bump) indicating simultaneity, and not necessarily causality. That's just a guess, though.

At any rate, if Hallabran wanted to stick with as, all this statement needed was a simple little comma: "...should not be interpreted, as we are permanently withdrawing our advertising from Fox." Amazing how a little smudge like that can clear things up so quickly.