Allison Pearson

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The amorality of language

Lena Riefenstahl is perhaps a poster child for immense talent put to a terrible use. The films she directed changed the way propaganda was delivered and some of the techniques she developed are still used today in film-making, advertising and documentaries. But originally they were put to use to make propaganda films for the Nazi regime. What she did with her skills does not lessen her abilities, but nor does it excuse how she applied them.

The problem with talent is that it need have nothing to do with morality. Morally good people (let’s not get into what that means for now) can be inept, and people who swim in moral sewers brilliant.

Writers are no exception to this rule, of course. And fortunately most of the time, the contrast is not as extreme, but good writing techniques can still be used for a multitude of purposes.

This struck home recently when the front page of the Daily Telegraph jumped out at me. The app version looked like this:


I recognised three things at the same time. One, the headline was misleading. Two, it read more like how a fiction writer would have written it (is it a metaphor or a simile, I can never remember the difference?), and three the name of the person who wrote the article.

Let’s start with the author. I came across Allison Pearson years ago at a literary event. It was one of the corporate ones and I was one of two males in a large room in a hotel near the office. I always seem to get invited to the rugby. I don’t want to go to the rugby, I want to go book-based events. I only got to go to this one because the person who was supposed to be invited couldn’t go at the last minute. The other author there was Mary Horlock, who had written a book set in Jersey which I subsequently bought (and enjoyed). On the day I was conscious of how quickly we form an opinion about someone, based both on what we notice and on what we don’t notice but what our subconscious processes for us. I came away not wanting to read Allison Pearson’s books, which is almost certainly totally unfair, but there we are. I can’t read everything and whether I warm to an author in person or not is a filter at my disposal. It’s like the cover that plays such a role in which novels we buy. It’s not logical, the cover does not tell you whether you will like the book, and yet I still find myself buying a book because the picture on the front tells me a story. It might not be the story inside the book, but by then it’s too late and I’m hooked.

So, the article in the Telegraph. As I said, it employed loads of fiction’s tricks. The Grand Canyon metaphor – much more memorable than saying “the numbers aren’t consistent”. Then taking the abstract concept of migration and turning that into the story of the fictional Piotr who comes for a few months, then ends up staying, bringing his wife and children and so on. It’s what works in fiction, humanising an issue, bringing it down to a single individual’s experience. In this case, it makes the article very readable, creating a concern about what might be going on with the Piotrs of the world. And of course, it’s much worse than that according to the article. We have the picture of pregnant women being turned away from maternity units. Well written, though: the husband who “has to drive 35 miles, with his wife groaning like a stricken moose”. And then we have children with bursting appendices unable to find a hospital bed, always good for reaching our most basic sympathies.

Except that it’s not that accurate. Great story, pity about the facts. If you are interested in the basis of the counter-arguments about the facts, you can find a good summary here:

You can get off with the facts being out in a novel, as long as they aren’t facts that matter to the story. You can’t (or shouldn’t be able to) in non-fiction, especially not if you are using them to support an argument for or against something.

My point here, though, is less about the facts – though they matter – and more about the way in which good writing can be used for any purpose. It is oblivious to morality, which is something where we have to bring our own sense of right and wrong into the equation. Personally I found this article horrendous for its unsubstantiated allegations, but others might well feel the points being made justify a less measured use of language. At the end of the day, language is just one of the tools at our disposal. How we use it it up to us.