The phone conversation was just about finished. From the other end of the line the formalities started to trickle in: “Anything else I can do for you, Sir?”, “It was a pleasure to serve you,” “Have a great rest of your day,” etc. We all know these overly polite and superficial conversations, and we roll our eyes as the customer service script keeps rolling out platitudes. Yeah, yeah.
But this time was slightly different. The lady at the other end of the line said something I couldn’t quite believe but considering the year we have had no amount of silliness can really surprise me anymore. Before we hung up, she said, “Stay safe.”
For context, this was not my mother worrying about my health, nor was it my doctor or a corona track-and-trace person inquiring about a suspected infection; it was a very regular arrand for a very standard delivery. Mundane. It had nothing to do with corona whatsoever, but she (or perhaps her bosses at this woke and caring company) felt an urge to wish me not happy birthday or happy holidays, but happy pandemic. Stay safe. It’s a dangerous world out there, and I just want you to know that our empty fake words are with you.
Gradually and surreptitiously this Orwellian transformation has begun. In June I wrote about the odd phrasings we had started to use about the pandemic:
“[P]eople treat the virus like the magic populace of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world treat the evil wizard Lord Voldemort: by refusing to invoke his name. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named caused unspeakable dread in Harry’s world, like the virus has caused panic in ours. So we don’t mention it. We say cumbersome things like ‘in these new times’ or ‘have you celebrated the holiday differently this year,’ with the subtle emphasis indicating that we’re really asking about the pandemic. Families, writes the New York Times, are ‘adapting to their new reality.’”
Still I find myself saying things like “Well, these days,” clearly invoking the virus and the routines we’ve lost, but refusing to speak its name or the horrors our political overlords unleashed in response.
Here, then, is the next step in our catastrophic battle against the pandemic: empty words spoken to a stranger, wishing the virus away. May the force be with you.
Only a few years ago “Slacktivism” was the word people derogatorily used for keyboard warriors whose political activism reached all the way from the living room to their Facebook accounts. Angrily broadcasting their meaningless opinion on some current topic through the witless wonders of social media, they were satisfied with a job well done. Campaigners and protesters of ages past knew nothing about how to parade your opinions around.
We’ve now gone one step further: slapping encouraging messages at the end of every conversation ‒ like a real-life email signature turned into real-world monsters. I say “stay safe” at the end of a standard customer service phone call, and magically both me and my customer service representative are going to feel better…? Do the words, like some spell from a magic fairy tale land, protect us from Scary Covid?
The power of nonsense words is pretty astonishing and is not at all limited to the pandemic. These days, thanks to hyper-intolerant wokeness and critical (race) theory, subjectivity has run amok. Everything is as I feel it; and everything is as you feel it, too ‒ at the same time, and nobody is to tell us differently. I say I’m a lady, and suddenly I am; I say the United States was founded in 1619, and suddenly it was; I say I’m a unicorn and suddenly unicorns exist.
Under the spell of these ideas, objective knowledge is a literal impossibility; all there is are power struggles, or at best an unconscious hierarchical play that harms those without power. Even as standard a thing as surveying how many Americans use masks when out in public is no longer constrained by reality. It is what you say it is, the prestigious scientific journal Nature appears to conclude.
The idea seems to be a reawakening of what linguists call a euphemism treadmill: If we just invent new words for bad things, the bad things will go away ‒ and if we think the bad things ought to be good, renaming them will make them so. On this Steven Pinker writes:
“People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotation.”
‘Water closets,’ ‘garbage collector’ and the myriad of terms for various ethnic distinctions are only particularly striking examples. Pinker writes that “the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name.”
This strange power of language to change hearts and minds was always dubious at best but has, in our times of coronavirus need, gone completely berserk. We need to have “the Covid talk” with our prospective partners, even wiping them down with disinfectants on our first date. The New York Times and NPR run stories of how to talk to your dates about your preferred level of security (another brilliant euphemism), and how your routines impact my circle of friends. We’re all in this together, as The Guardian so distastefully put it, and we’ll get through it with words of encouragement. Stay strong. Stay woke. Stay safe.
If we tell a virus to back off, it will. If we ensure one another with empty religious phrases, we’ll all be protected from God’s wrath. George Orwell and his “Politics and the English Language” has never felt more relevant.