Does epidemic of 'scare quotes' threaten a civil society?

scare quotesIn the long run-up to the last American presidential election, an epidemic of so-called “scare quotes” almost turned political punditry and commentary by those on the left and right into a mockery of democracy and liberty. It’s happening still now with news commentaries and op-eds on both sides of the fence about abortion issues, the NSA brouhaha and gun control, among other things.

I feel that the epidemic of scare quotes not only threatens to infect and undermine the entire political process of this country, but it is also invading the religious realm as well. Maybe we should stop the excessive use of scare quotes?

When someone on the left or right doesn’t like the language of the opposing side, the writer often chooses to puts the word, or words, in scare quotes, to signal to the reader that he or she is of a very different opinion, and as a result, nothing gets resolved and only more confusion and noise results.

When a writer is writing about various religions issues and ‘platforms’ (see, I just used a scare quote to give you an example of how it can be used!), he or she often resorts to the scare quotes methodology to score points with those who already agree, or to mock those he or she dislikes on the other side of the pulpit.

scare quotesThe scare quotes epidemic needs to be curtailed (maybe even cured), and strong measures must be taken to rein in this sloppy and incorrect use of language and punctuation.

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, writing last year for a blog known as GetReligion, put it this way in her headline (note the scare quotes in the middle): “Scare quote epidemic spreads to ‘natural’ family planning”

Ziegler Hemingway wrote that an editor she knows “with many years in the business sent along the latest example of the odd use of scare quotes—although he called them “smear quotes.”

She explained that the example came from the Religion News Service, which had recently sent out an article with the headline, “Amid political battle, Catholic bishops promote ‘natural’ family planning.”

When the same article ran in the Huffington Post, she noted, it had the headline, “Catholic Bishops Promote ‘Natural’ Family Planning Amid Battle Over Contraception Mandate,” with the loaded word “natural” in the ubiquitous and ill-coined ”scare quotes” term now embedded in newsroom cultures of both conservatives and liberals alike.

She noted that the article began this way: “Amid a battle with President Obama over a new contraception mandate, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops are promoting ‘natural’  family planning – but will their flock take heed?”

Ziegler Hemingway also noted that when she first pointed out ”the rather curious scare quote policy of Religion News Service (in which ‘religious liberty’ was getting the treatment), we got some messages defending it. From RNS contributor Mark Silk we were told “the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the ‘defenders’ may actually be up to something else.”

Silk suggested that the true motivation of people advocating for religious liberty was partisan. And RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom backed this up, telling GetReligion that, “there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.”

You get the message, I think. The epidemic of scare quotes is turning America into a culture of name-calling, scare-quote throwing shouters.

Scare quotes now appear regularly in once scare-quote-free publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, not to mention even here at TeleRead.

America, both left and right,  has gone ”scare quotes” crazy. And no one has ever really defined what a “scare quote” actually is, who coined it, or when or why. I found an early reference to the term in a 1946 book about California by Upton Sinclair. So it’s not a new term. It may have been coined as early as the late 1800s in Britain, according to online sources.

So how to stop the epidemic in America and Britain? A syndicated “B.C.” comic strip in the daily newspapers in 2012 said it well. We are living now in a culture where liberals and conservatives drink water at separate water fountains in the park, the cartoonist implied—sarcastically, of course, as he is a cartoonist—one labeled “Conservatives Only” and the other labelled “Liberals Only.”

This kind of scare quotes ”scare-mongering” must be contained somehow, or the contagion will only get worse.

When a simple three-panel comic strip tells Americans to wake up and look at what the ”shouters” are doing to our political and religious culture, it’s time for us all to wake up. No more separate drinking fountains. We are one people, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. No?

Disagree with each other if you want to, dear pundits of the left and right. But without the scare quotes, please.

Dan Bloom is  a freelance writer based in Taiwan.

2 Comments on Does epidemic of 'scare quotes' threaten a civil society?

  1. I disagree. This is not a problem, IMHO.

    The use of “scare quotes” just indicates to the reader that the word is being used in a context that may have a very different meaning that the common or “traditional” one (and also gives away the editorial slant/perspective of the author as much as it reveals anything about the subject).

    It is a perfectly viable technique that can alert the reader that both the author of the article and the subject of the article have a distinct editorial perspective, i.e., this article is not “news” but opinion.

    Discerning readers really can tell the difference without much effort.

    Besides, the example is from the New York Post and the land of Murdoch. Anyone expecting “real” news from such a source is in for a rude surprise indeed.

  2. In the last year I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid scare quotes. I’ve even begun to call them by a more accurate term–sneer quotes–because that’s what a writer who uses them is doing. He’s assuming he owns a term and sneering at those who use it in ways he doesn’t like.

    I also think using those marks insults your readers. You’re assuming they’re either too stupid to understand this differing meaning, or so gullible they’ll fall for someone else’s differing use. I like to treat my readers with respect.

    In addition, it’s sloppy writing. If you disagree with how a term is used, take the effort to explain why the first time the term comes up and then use it without cluttering what you have to say with those distracting marks. Much of the time, I suspect, those who use scare quotes can’t really offer a good explanation for their point of view. All they can do is sneer.

    In the example above, they sneer at ‘natural’ family planning and yet it’s difficult to imagine anything more natural than birth control that uses a woman’s own reproductive cycle. Their real objection, I suspect, isn’t that the method isn’t natural but that admitting that term into the debate exposes just how unnatural some other birth control methods are, particularly those that use artificial hormones and place a woman’s reproductive system in a most unnatural state, in some case a perpetual second month of pregnancy. In those situations, scare quotes aren’t being used to expose someone else’s deceptive language but to engage in some deception of their own.

    Users of scare quotes also likely to drive copy editors mad. Anytime a writer does something out-of-the-ordinary, it creates a host of consistency issues. Do you use scare quotes only once? Do you use them some of the time? Do you use them every time for consistency sake? And if a usage is mid-way between approved and disapproved, how do you decide what to do? In short, using them creates a mess that’s easily avoided by not using them at all.

    All those reasons and more are why I keep a beady eye out of any accidental use that I may make of them when I edit. It’s a bad habit I’m working to correct.

    –Michael W. Perry, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girls Guide to Hospitals

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail

wordpress analytics