Weighted Words

Part of my job here at Sebranek Inc. is to stay abreast of ongoing technology issues as they relate to writing. That means, among other things, having a Twitter account and following people like Tim O’Reilly (of tech publishing giant O’Reilly Media). Today, Tim reTweeted the following post by Lewis Shepherd (CTO of Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments):

Bad News Dept.: The US now has a Cyber Czar – and you’ll never guess who it is. Shocking analysis: http://tinyurl.com/auhlvn.

The article on the other side of that link concerns a panel discussion at the recent World Economic Forum, which included an interchange between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Michael Dell of the computer giant Dell, Inc. The author says:

Michael Dell praised Russia’s technical and scientific prowess and asked a nice, friendly question: “How can we help.” As a former govie CTO I would get asked that type of question all the time from industry and really appreciated it whenever a senior thought leader would ask that. But not Czar Putin. He did not appreciate that at all. Putin was offended by the assertion that the mighty Russia might need help in anything Cyber.

The author also repeats part of a Fortune article on the subject, “Putin-Dell slapdown at Davos.”

Putin’s withering reply to Dell: “We don’t need help. We are not invalids. We don’t have limited mental capacity.” The slapdown took many of the people in the audience by surprise. Putin then went on to outline some of the steps the Russian government has taken to wire up the country, including remote villages in Siberia. And, in a final dig at Dell, he talked about how Russian scientists were rightly respected not for their hardware, but for their software. The implication: Any old fool can build a PC outfit.

This all builds a pretty clear picture of a dangerously tyrannical Putin arrogantly dismissing an innocent offer of aid. After all, we have the weight of O’Reilly, Shepherd, CTOvision.com, and Fortune behind this perspective.

But even more significant are the weighted words in these posts. Words like nice and friendly on the one hand, versus terms like shocking, Czar Putin, withering, slapdown, demeaning streak. These words tell us what to think about the situation before we’ve even had a chance to consider the details.

I’m not an expert on Russia (though I’ve read much of its history and literature). I’m not an IT expert (though I’ve solved a few tech problems in my time). I am a writer, and as such am immediately put on my guard when confronted with weighted words. Watch the video included in the first article, and you may perceive a very different exchange between Dell and Putin. What does Dell mean when he says “I found myself…surprised to hear that comment. Six months ago I would have never imagined hearing that comment from yourself”? How is that translated by Putin’s translator? What East-West issues color Putin’s own reception of Dell’s words? Where is the supposed “slapdown” in Putin’s demeanor as he replies?

As educators, one of the greatest gifts we can give our students is to help them recognize when they are being manipulated. Weighted words are one of the clearest signals students can watch for. While this use of language doesn’t guarantee that the story as told is false, it does guarantee that we’re hearing only one side of it, and that’s always problematic.


One thought on “Weighted Words

  • January 31, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Being a resident of Texas and knowing that Michael Dell was the biggest welfare recipient in the state, I think Putin could read behind the lines of “How can we help” as meaning, “how can I get a tax shelter in your country to build PCs.”

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