Tuesday, November 27, 2007

the genetic engineering beat

Interesting news about GM beets in this story. It shows a little of the ebb and flow of biotech crop advances and opposition to them (as well as media coverage of them). In many ways, the development relates to my piece about GM turf grass in Wired last year. Again, the essential trick is making the crop resistant to glyphosate, a.k.a Roundup. Nothing new there. On the other hand, the public response to biotech applications to for golf courses versus foods can be quite different. The discussion will grow more complicated in the coming years, with the advent of crops designed to better handle drought, provide extra nutrition for malnourished populations and sequester CO2.

Monday, November 12, 2007

euphemism alert

I try to read at least one letter a week from Bill Woo's Letters from the Editor. One entry, about the hazards of euphemism and jargon, is particularly timely this week, as I continue researching a story about autism. A mother of an autistic boy urged me to always say and write, "child with autism" or "person who is autistic" instead of "autistic person." The reason, she said, and others have echoed this sentiment, is that "autistic person" makes personhood secondary to diagnosis, literally and figuratively.

When I heard this, I was tempted to agree with the woman, doubly so perhaps because of her personal experience and general expertise about autism issues. But then Woo reminded me of Botox writing. "It may seem to help for a little while but then things start sagging again." Woo's essay recalls a resolution once issued by the National Federation of the Blind, asking the world not to use terms like "visually challenged," "person of blindness" or "sightless." However well-intentioned, politically correct language carries with it the suggestion that blind people are overly sensitive about or shamed by their condition. As the resolution stated: "We believe it respectable to be blind, and although we have no particular pride in the fact of our blindness, neither do we have any shame in it. To the extent that euphemisms are used to convey any other concept or image, we deplore such use. We can make our own way in the world on equal terms." No one reaches for "person in the banking business" to describe a banker, the group wrote, so why would it be any different for blind people? What's next? Persons of left-handedness?

On the small scale, the offense is a minor one; four or five words instead of one or two. But economy of words as a principle matters tremendously to anyone who strives to communicate clearly. It's the threat to clarity, Woo warns, that makes Botox writing so toxic. He closes his essay with this note from a
former president of the National Federation of the Blind:

Euphemisms and the politically correct language which they exemplify are sometimes only prissy, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes tiresome. Often, however, they are more than that. At their worst they obscure clear thinking and damage the very people and causes they claim to benefit.