… Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

… No longer free to exercise it myself [Judt has Lou Gehrig’s disease], I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right — and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.


Scathing Online Schoolmarm found a good example of nospeak in reading blogs that were responding to the recent Saudi fatwa advising women to breastfeed men.

There is of course strict gender segregation in Saudi Arabia; but if a woman suckles a man, he becomes ‘family.’ Thus, as a Saudi woman, I will now be able to interact with men unrelated to me, so long as I first breastfeed them.

Here is how one blogger responds to this grotesquerie.

I am certainly not an expert in Islamic law or religion, nor do I write this in order to contribute to the stereotypes propagated in the West or claim cultural superiority. There are cultural differences I don’t understand, thus I try to reserve my judgement.

One wonders what sort of pronouncement from a community leader would be bizarre enough for this writer to respond with something other than politically correct vacuity. What sort of statement, what sort of policy, might prevent her from retreating into know-nothingism (cultural differences I don’t understand)? Does she understand anything about how women live in Saudi Arabia?

If she really can’t understand the difference between women told to breastfeed all unrelated men with whom they come into contact and women not told to do that, I think it would be better for this writer to retreat all the way, into silence. Certainly if she thinks withholding any judgment of this fatwa is enlightened, that judging a cleric who tells women to do this would express an unacceptable sense of cultural superiority, she would best say nothing at all.

As it is, her nospeak conveys not merely the intellectual insecurity Judt describes. It conveys the utter erosion of moral capacity.

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5 Responses to “Tony Judt on Language”

  1. Eric the Read Says:

    On a related note– I wish I could find this, but a while back I saw an inspiring video of a guy at a poetry slam doing a piece on how the overuse of the word ‘like’ conveys a tentativeness to our opinions that renders them wholly toothless and bland. Unfortunately, googling for ‘poetry slam like’ doesn’t give a whole lot of helpful answers. :-\

  2. Richard Says:

    It probably serves as well as ever to bring up Johnson (in his way one of the least intellectually insecure folks I can think of and a wrathful foe of ‘nospeak’) and his ‘fixed rule to do his best on every occasion, and in every company: to impart what he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in’.

    Conceivably a recipe for dullness and unmitigated dogmatism in hands other than Johnson’s, but it beats contentedly vague reservations of judgement.

  3. david foster Says:

    Wonder what her reaction would have been if this breastfeeding policy had been established by an American state government, say, in Utah? (Yeah, I know it would be illegal, but this is just a thought experiment) Would it have been so carefully hedged with caution and respect?

    I doubt it; the culture in question would have to rise to a certain level of exoticness to trigger this kind of thinking/writing, and even Utah probably doesn’t reach that threshold…Saudi clearly does, though.

  4. aunt deb Says:

    Well, not to defend vacuity and find myself facing a scathing remark from UD, but I’ve been curious about this fatwa since I first read about it here so today I finally went reading around in the Arabic press to see just what the heck was going on. I don’t read Arabic, so I have to rely on translated text.

    This wasn’t something ordered by the Saudi government or by a state religious authority. It was a fatwa issued by one person who is actually a moderate. Apparently there had been a fatwa issued prior to this by another sheikh which endorsed the mingling of sexes. That sheikh was first dismissed but later reinstated, according to al Arabiya. The current fatwa regarding the breastfeeding of unrelated men was seen as a way to get around the separation of sexes. The conservative religionists are opposed to this fatwa, as are the liberals and women’s rights supporters.

    The man who issued this fatwa also said that noon and midday prayers could be combined when temperatures are very high. This got him in trouble, too.

    Islamic authorities are also arguing, perhaps even more heatedly, about another fatwa issued by another sheikh which says that music is not un-Islamic.

    I would say that these fatwas and the debate generated is evidence of a growing moderate faction within Saudi Arabia.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks for that comment, aunt deb.

    On the question of what this fatwa – and the back and forth on the evils of music – tells us about the possible liberalization of Saudi Arabia: I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    I think this stuff indicates a certain chaos, a certain can-you-top-this fundamentalist cacophony. But it seems to me – like most chaos – to be in no particular direction, liberal or conservative.

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