Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Get the Protocol Droid

Once in a while, I’m reminded just how powerful words can be and why, as a writer, I should take more pains to make sure I’m using the right ones.

Here’s my latest reminder. To sum up, President Obama, in awarding a medal of freedom to a deceased World War II Polish resistance fighter, said “resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

Poland is in a tizzy over Obama’s wording. As Slate’s Abby Ohlheiser points out, Poles in the past have objected when any Nazi death camp in their country is referred to as a “Polish” death camp. I can see why they would choose to quibble over such a distinction. The death camps were not instigated by the Polish – the Polish streak of anti-Semitism aside – by the Polish government, but, rather, by the Nazi occupiers. These are rightly Nazi death camps, not Polish ones.

So let’s take a look at how this likely happened: Editing.

I’m not sure how much of President Obama’s words were scripted beforehand – his reliance on teleprompters aside. If they were scripted, I can see easily someone looking at the more correct phrase “Nazi death camps in Poland” and thinking, “Let’s tighten that up a bit. Polish death camps. Much better.” Much better, but much less correct. And if the words were not scripted – which I think is the most likely scenario here – President Obama meant no disrespect, but was just looking for the shortest way to get himself from A to B in awarding the medal. Again, choosing a phrase easier on the tongue but one, in the eyes of the Polish, that is more than incorrect, but that is slanderous.

This is an excellent exercise at looking at tailoring your speech to the audience and the advantages of considering that audience not only when writing, but also when editing. We as editors should realize that as we deal with sensitive subjects is would be wise to put on a sensitive editing hat – difficult as we don’t have a C3PO-like protocol droid at our elbow, reminding us of the offense taken at such slights in the past. We are after all, fallible and not capable of retaining – let alone discovering – such gaffes so we can avoid them.

What can we do?

We can read our words carefully.

We can read a little history and try to figure out what might happen if we phrase things in a certain way.

We can look at things like Camp Westerbork, a Nazi transient camp in The Netherlands that started out as a refugee camp for German Jews fleeing the Nazis but ending as a transient camp for “undesireables” the Nazis shipped to Germany, and throw up our hands in despair at trying to know every nuance.
Or we could find someone Polish – or, better yet, some several people of Polish nationality – and ask them, “So, how is this phrasing going to go over in your homeland?”

And then pray they’re representative of their countrymen.

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