When Powerful Writing Has Too Much Power

Bad weather coming: an ‘Amber Warning for snow’. Yet another warning of yet another upset. I have been warned, and I must check to see I am not in danger and that none of my plans is threatened; I must check the weather report to see if it disrupts my travel or family business, or anything else. The house of cards that my life may be in lockdown is teetering now.

In full the ‘Warning’ reads:

Met Office Amber warning for snow. Valid from 3pm Wednesday to 10am Thursday. 10–20cm on ground above 200m. Several cm to lower levels is possible by Thursday morning too. Some disruption is likely.

Checking the detail (converting the click), I can relax. Snow could be as little as 5cm, if it falls. It need not be 20cm at all, even on high ground. There’s a lot of high ground in Scotland but it so happens that I am not on it. Nothing is wrong. ‘Some disruption is likely’, but I can deal with it when, and if, it happens. Pulse drops.

How easily it would have been to write,

Prospect of snow tomorrow, Met Office says. 5cm or a bit more but on high ground it could, at worst, go up to 20cm. Check where you are, just in case there’s disruption. Amber warning valid from 3pm Wednesday to 10am Thursday.

It would be better still if ‘warning’ were not the public-facing term for this level of message in the internal ‘warnings’ protocol, and then we could leave it out entirely.

I think we may not even notice any more that so much, even ‘factual’ language maintains a constant low-level coercion. In the very same society that promotes ‘resilience’ and which multiplies words about suicide or a multitude of states of mind, we tolerate a subtly brutal approach to far too much communication. No wonder, if people react by being brutes. The same society that has been shocked to see how much data surveillance has been turned into manipulative messaging in politics is made up of people who are, still, free to find words that do not punch to the gut to get the job done.

Surely it must be a concern that this is counterproductive. These techniques for managing society, rather than encouraging clarity and debate in it, have passed the top of their curve of growing usefulness. They were never truly respectful. They never really treated the reader as an equal. They began as a way to grab attention, but mutated cunningly out of persuasive writing and into a reasoning bypass. If I took my reader entirely seriously, she might turn away from my argument; if I do not truly respect her right to do that, I must do more than hook her and show her the angle; I have to make her a fish out of water; I have to overwhelm her in an atmosphere. Amber Warning. It could be about to snow.

Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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