Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Tragedies and Miracles

I am increasingly annoyed by the widespread misuse of two words, generally in media accounts of dramatic events - or in dramatic accounts of media events: "tragedy" and "miracle".

In the most precise sense, a miracle is an event so extraordinary as to actually violate a law of nature. If a large building were to levitate in the air before a crowd of reliable and otherwise sane witnesses, that would be a miracle. As a skeptic, I would want to know a lot about those witnesses: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and all that. But I still respect the word, and want to reserve it for its original use.

But now, anytime anyone anywhere has some unexpected good fortune, walks away from a bad accident, wins the lottery, is cured by some new innovation in modern medicine, is conceived by natural or contrived means (hence "the miracle of life"), sees the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, rescues Fluffy from a burning house, or generally has something happen to them that makes them happy, it's called "a miracle" on the evening news. A miracle is supposed to be something literally impossible, but it's been gradually reduced to something improbable, unlikely, or just really weird.

In the most precise sense, a tragedy is the relentless working out of fate, where hubris meets nemesis, and where the tragic hero is unaware of what is happening until the trap has finally closed. (The obliviousness of the tragic hero is what is properly called "irony"). This is tragedy in the Greek sense of the term. I don't know that I believe in "fate", and I certainly don't believe in the Greek gods, but I can respect the idea that past actions can have current consequences, and that some of them may be deserved. Since I respect the idea, I respect the word and want to reserve it for its original use.

But now, anytime anyone anywhere has some unexpected bad fortune, is killed or injured in a bad accident, loses the winning lottery ticket, is not cured in spite of innovations in modern medicine, fails to rescue Fluffy from a burning house, or generally has something happen to them that makes them unhappy, it's called "a tragedy" on the evening news. A tragedy is supposed to be momentous and ironic, but it has been gradually reduced to anything that is in any way sad, from the truly horrific to the truly banal.

It's been a long time since I've read 1984, but this deadening or flattening of language reminds me of Newspeak. Orwell had it wrong, though: rather than replacing expressive words that might move people to action with neutered words like "double-plus-good", all you have to do is drain the expressive words of their deeper connotations. The effect will be the same: a loss of meaning, a loss of connection and concern.

On and just after September 11, 2001, it occurred to me that news coverage of the attacks suffered from the impoverishment of language. Again and again we were told that we were witnessing a "tragedy", but the word just floated out there, serving to reduce the horror of that day to the scale of every other slightly sad or plus-ungood event that had been packaged and sold as "tragedy" by the 24-hour news marathon over the preceding decades - right down to the death of Fluffy.

Surely, I thought, the events of September 11 were horrific, horrible, terrible; the attacks themselves were heinous crimes, perhaps even unspeakable (literally!) outrages against our common humanity. They were, I thought at the time, the result of a catastrophic failure of imagination (about which more in another posting). But were they "tragic" in the full-blooded sense of the term?

I suspected then, and I still suspect, that the journalists, quasi-journalists, commentators and other assorted natterers reached for the words "tragedy" and "tragic" because they had no other words to express how horribly, horribly sad and outrageous the whole thing was. They had to fill air time with something, and the conventions of the business dictate that the term for something really, really sad is "tragedy" - a word to be uttered with a somber tone and with a bunching together of the eyebrows.

The irony, of course, is that this use of the term effectively distracted everyone from the deeper sense in which the events of those days might really have been tragic in the Greek sense of the term - the inexorable working-out of a chain of events set in motion long before, something we should have seen coming.

Why should we care about this? I'm worried that, someday, we'll come across something truly miraculous or truly tragic, and we won't know what to call it.

No comments: