Have you noticed how you can’t go anywhere without hearing about something that is ‘sustainable’ or someone who is ‘passionate’ about something?
People who are passionate about the sustainability of the English language should be alarmed.
Because overuse of those words has resulted in them losing some of their richness. According to my dictionary, passionate can mean not only enthusiastic, but also filled with anger and affected by sexual desire. So technically, if someone tells you that they are passionate about whales, you don’t know, without wider context, whether they hate them, like them a lot or have rather kinky tastes.
Similarly, sustain means to nourish, to prove, to prolong, to support, withstand, bear up under, or to admit as valid. So you could say, “It is not sustainable that sustainability of the arguments about global ‘sustainability’ can be sustained unless I get sustained.” (Translation: You can’t prove that the validity of the arguments about global warming can be supported until you feed me).
What has happened is that passionate and sustainability have become code words that have a Pavlovian effect on us. They are communications shorthand designed to produce a desired reaction in our brains. I was talking to an HR person who said that if she saw another resume cover letter describing the writer as ‘passionate’ about something she would embark on a screaming binge that would probably not be sustainable.
To prove my point I did a couple of Google searches to see which terms returned the most hits. Have a look at the number of hits each search returned:
There are over 50 times more hits for ‘sustainability’ than there are for the eminently sustainable Queen!
The theory is that our brains have been trained to say “passionate equals good and sustainable equals good.”
So it should come as no surprise that these words crop up a lot in marketing material and in communications from politicians.
In fact, what got me focused on this issue is that on October 9 we will be electing the mayor of Auckland. Down here we vote for mayor by mail—they send you the ballot and a booklet with each candidate’s picture and their statement of why they should be elected. A couple of days ago we got our booklets. Among other things, they contain lots of passion.
Politics in NZ is refreshing by comparison to other places I’ve lived and there is a reasonable amount of transparency. There are limits on contributions to politicians and political parties and there are spending limits for election campaigns. For example, for the national elections, the campaign period is limited to three months before the election and during that time, political parties can only spend $1 million. Individual candidates can only spend $20,000. For local elections the limits are based on population size of the area. There are also limits on how much individuals and groups can contribute to parties and candidates and there are lots of disclosure rules so you know who gave how much to whom.
This has the great benefit of (1) preventing big bucks from unduly influencing things and (2) saving the populace from nonstop campaigning.
One of the best rules is that candidates can only put posters and signs up in specified locations and are required to take them down immediately after the election.
The biggest benefit though is that it makes the political process much more inclusive. If the most anyone can spend is $20,000, being rich is not a requirement for entry. In fact there are very few barriers to running for office. This is evidenced by the fact that this time there are 23 people running for mayor of Auckland. None of them are affiliated with any national political party. In fact 17 are declared independents. The other six belong to “other” parties such as the Communist League.
Although the booklet of candidates is professionally done, the blurbs, most no doubt written by the candidates themselves, are unvarnished and unedited and give interesting insights into the people. These blurbs are what got me thinking about overuse of the words “passionate” and “sustainability.” Most of the candidates are passionate about sustaining things. Except in the case of the Communist candidate, who is passionate about not sustaining “power [in] the hands of the capitalist rulers.” By the way, no one came out as passionate about masturbation, one way or the other.
But the candidate who emerged as a breath of fresh air (no pun intended as you will see) is Nga Dave, who seems to have replaced Scruff Ralph as the real peoples’ candidate. Scruff Ralph finished 12th out of 15 contenders in the last election. His tagline was “A Vote for Scruff is a Vote of No Confidence.” In an interview he stated that the most important election issue for him was that he was looking for a job.
Anyway, Nga tells us: “Formal education played a very small role in my life. I left school at 14 once I discovered marijuana and I have walked with marijuana for 30 years. I am a criminal in the sense that I smoke illegal substances. But in my heart I know that I am not bad. I am one of the people I want to represent. The common people. I want to resurrect democracy of the people, for the people, by the people.”
Now isn’t that more interesting than hearing that someone is passionate about sustaining things?
There are two front runners in the election—the current mayor and the mayor of a city that is being amalgamated with Auckland in a big local government consolidation. They have been getting all of the media attention and I thought I knew who I was voting for. But then I got the booklet and found out about people like Nga Dave . . .
I’ll report the results in two weeks!