I try not to do politics on the blog, and for that matter I don’t usually swear here either. So if these things might bother you, please look away now – come back next time, when I’ll be discussing the merits of standing desks, or the pros and cons of the Oxford comma! [The comma one’ll never happen – Ed.]
As editors, we quickly discover that one of the main aspects of our job is the ability to fade into the background. We learn to channel other people’s words and thoughts, helping them to express their meaning, while avoiding imposing our own preferences or message. For this reason, usually I try to steer clear of politics when writing here and in my dealings with clients. If I were returning an urgent assignment on the day the world was about to end, say, it’s possible I might refer to it obliquely in my sign-off, but qualified with a smiley face just in case my client happens to think that Armageddon is totally cool.
This morning, though, I woke up with my heart pounding and my head buzzing. For once, I hadn’t had a nightmare about Donald Trump, which was nice. Instead I was fizzing with the need to write about what it feels like to be holding a red pen up against a torrent of bullshit. What it feels like to be editing in times of extreme darkness.
For the record, I’ll briefly nail my colours to the mast. I wish I lived in a world with no borders, where everyone was considered equal, everyone was allowed to live a life following their dreams and interests, there were no weapons, and everyone worried about the environment. Oh, and people wouldn’t die in hospital corridors while they waited for a bed in one of the richest countries in the world. That’s pretty much it. (I know – deluded, right? You can see why I ended up floundering around in a soppy career like editing.)
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that there are riches to go around for everyone, if we only had the will to share them. (Eight richest guys, I’m looking at you.) Surely, too, between us we have the expertise to figure out how to live more sustainably and stop completely fucking up our planet? Of course we do; we’re just prevented from doing this. We’re basically prevented from doing anything that deviates from the commonly understood good of making money and contributing to economic growth. Oh, and building walls around what we have to keep it safe from others.
Against this backdrop, it can sometimes be difficult to buckle down to editing. I climb upstairs to my office, one part of me raring to get stuck in to this book about architectural theory, or that article on multi-coloured lighting solutions … and another part of me is wilting already, and thinking that my job is utterly futile. Outside, the world burns.
And yet. perhaps now is as good a time as any to be working with words. At the moment, it can feel as if words are losing their meanings. Things aren’t what they used to be, that’s for sure, and they’re still changing fast.
For example, back in the summer I discovered that I was one of ‘the 48%’. ‘48% of what?’ you might well ask. Honestly – it hardly matters now. Like everyone else on 23 June 2016, I voted for something, but it sure as hell bore no relation either to the question on the ballot paper, or where we seem to be right now.
Anyway, no one really talks about the 48% any more. I’ve since been rebranded, as a Remainer, or a Remoaner, depending which newspaper you read. In the past few days, though, I have been urged by our great leader (don’t get me started) to desist from using this terminology, too. I think, if I understand correctly, I have now been repurposed as a Loser, and my task as a Loser is to give in gracefully, accept The Will of the People, set aside my actual thoughts and feelings and deep misgivings, turn a blind eye to the rampant xenophobia, coat myself in Union Jacks and pull together with all the other 65 million people on this bloody stupid little island and make this thing work. Take Back Control – yeah! Or something.
I’ve probably digressed, but you get my drift. Words matter, perhaps more now than ever. They are being appropriated and used against us. To provoke us into action and reaction; to shape our beliefs. We are told, for example, that something can be great again – not that, in many ways, it already was. We are told that the people have spoken – when strictly speaking, a great many of them are muttering confusedly on the sidelines. We are urged to ignore the pronouncements of experts. We are encouraged to overthrow the ‘elites’ – bearing in mind that elite doesn’t seem to mean what it did two years ago; I’m sure I didn’t used to be an elite, but now I think I’ve been promoted. Words are being used to steamroller our individual feelings and make us conform.
Some people think editors are ‘guardians of language’. I’ve never felt that – I’m not a prescriptivist – but perhaps in these dark times, when words seem to matter so much, and precise meanings matter more than ever, we could instead be vigilantes of nuance, helping in our small way to guard against against the obliteration of free thought and self-expression.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She worries a lot.