Scare quote epidemic spreads to natural family planning (UPDATES)

It’s been almost a month since a reader sent in a discussion of the use of scare quotes in the San Diego Jewish World by Dan Bloom. He says that his correspondents call them other things, such as “sneer quotes,” “horror quotes,” “air quotes” and “quote-unquote quotes.” And Jon Stewart calls them something that is not family friendly at all.

An editor with many years in the business sent along the latest example of the odd use of scare quotes — although he called them, and I think it’s kind of funny and more family friendly than Mr. Stewart’s term, “smear quotes.” He referred to the use of the quotes as “weird.” I must concur.

The example comes from Religion News Service, which sent out an article with the headline “Amid political battle, Catholic bishops promote ‘natural’ family planning.” When it ran in the Huffington Post, it had the headline “Catholic Bishops Promote ‘Natural’ Family Planning Amid Battle Over Contraception Mandate.” The story begins:

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?

And then the story hops back and forth between the use of scare quotes and the use of the term without scare quotes. I’m not entirely sure why. Other than in the use of proper nouns, we get two instances of just natural (without quotes) and then return to the scare quotes once and then back to no scare quotes twice.

Back when we were first pointing 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.” Dunh dunh dunh! (Silk suggests that the true motivation of people advocating for religious liberty is partisan.) And RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom backed this up and said “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 can read more on this in my post “Toward a more consistent scare quote policy.”

Readers pointed out that if this were truly the policy of RNS, we’d start seeing scare quotes popping up all over the place. Particularly with abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.” I’m not a big fan of scare quotes, obviously, but if you do defend them around religious liberty, obviously the whole abortion debate is a question of whether the right to abortion exists at all. And the entire marriage debate hinges on whether the marriage of two people of the same sex is an ontological possibility. Some folks say yes. Some folks say no.

I haven’t had a chance to see if RNS’ policy is becoming consistent across these issues (do let us know if you’ve seen same-sex marriage or abortion rights get the scare quote treatment) but even that policy wouldn’t apply to scare quoting the “natural” in “natural family planning” would it?

I imagine most women understand the difference between family planning that utilizes hormones or implantation of devices and family planning that is based on understanding how your own body works and when you’re fertile. And it’s not a phrase used only by Catholics. My own fertility book, which is pictured here, is completely secular and it’s subtitled: “The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement and Reproductive Health”

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what got the “natural” put in the penalty box? I’m honestly confused as to what that quote is supposed to signal. And that just further confirms for me that scare quotes should be used sparingly. And that the downside to using them outweighs any benefit. But maybe I’m missing something. What do you think?

UPDATE: While the Washington Post and Huffington Post published the RNS story as it was sent out (with the scare quotes), in the version on the RNS web site, there are no scare quotes.

ANOTHER UPDATE: At close of business today, RNS sent out its daily transmission that included the story mentioned above with the following note:

Eds: An incompletely edited version of this story moved on July 18. Please use this version instead.

It looks like the new version is identical to the old version except the quotes around “natural” are no longer there and the final quote has an additional line.

Shortly thereafter, Huffington Post updated its story with the new copy. However, they did keep the quote around “natural” in the headline. The link to the Washington Post story still has the old copy and headline.

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  • mdevlin

    You wrote:

    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.”

    Isn’t that what journalism is supposed to do? Shouldn’t articles alert readers of something if the reporters smell a rat, and not merely the punctuation?

  • Martha

    Why the scare quotes – rejection of any distinction between “natural” and “artificial” methods (on the grounds that a differenct that makes no difference is no difference)? Accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the bishops (they’re leading a campaign against insurance coverage for contraception yet they’re trying to sneak a method of birth control in by calling it ‘natural’)? Lack of understanding about the philosophy underlying the Church’s teaching?

    All of the above?

  • Beate

    Yes Martha, and perhaps the whole idea of self-control is deemed un-natural.

  • mdevlin

    I think my earlier comment was misunderstood. I mean using “so-and-so said” and paraphrasing what they said, in addition to quoting, should be sufficient for telling readers what someone’s word choice is.

  • Darkward

    The Washington Times used to print the phrase as “same-sex ‘marriage’” (and maybe they still do; I haven’t read them recently).

    Maybe we should see MORE use of this kind of thing. How about, ” ‘Nuns’ on a Bus”? Or “the George Soros-funded ‘Faith’ in Public Life organization”? :-)

  • Thinkling

    The cynic in me suggests that the quotes were put on because to the writer’s mind, using natural family planning is unnatural. Thus he could not keep the word unquoted because the word natural seems oxymoronic or at least disputed. Similar to Beate #3.

  • sari

    Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what got the “natural” put in the penalty box?

    Could it be misunderstanding of the process and the belief that it is far less effective than chemical contraception? Iow, the implication that ‘natural’ family planning is equivalent to no family planning.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Hmmmn. Let’s try this:

    ‘RNS’ has written some ‘excellent’ articles using a ‘fine’ policy on quote marks.

    I think it is fairly clear what quote marks actually do in practice. And hence, it is not too hard to see why they are used in certain contexts.

  • Dan Bloom

    Mollie, great post and good ammo for all who are discussing these issues. One thing and I need to emphasize this: ther term “scare quotes” is a mis-named and ill-coined punctuation term which is meaningless in English and has no relation to the word “scare” or scaring anyone. So we need to jettison this now-embedded term and find a better one. I suggest “flag quotes” or “spot quotes” as alternatives to the total drivel of “scare quotes.” Flag, as in to flag something or to bring attention to a certain word or phrase, and spot for to spotlight something, in the same way. The thing is not all sneer quotes or smear quotes are sneers or smears: some are, some aren’t. In politics and religions, true, they are often are. But in the general use of quote unquote quotes, we need a general term that fits all comers. Another professor has called them “prophylactic quotes.” Others call them “mendacity quotes.” Thing is, Mollie, no one, nobody, not even the Oxford English Dictionary or the Chicago Style Manual know who coined the “scare quotes” term or when or why or where. Was it the UK in the 1880s? What is the USA in the 1920s? The first use of the term in an American print publication was in 1946 in Carey McWilliam’s book about California, where he spoke of “advertising men culling the best ‘scare-quotes’ [readers in 2012, please note hyphen use there!] from the voluminous writings of Upton Sinclair.” 1946! And we are still using this mis-named, ill-coined term! Why not call them “square quotes” then, for “quote be correctly or be square!”

  • http://!)! Passing By

    With the caveat that sometimes a quotation mark is just a quotation mark, I like “smear quote”, since that often seems the effect of the usage.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    All it is is an attempt to discredit anything the Catholic Church has to say. These aren’t scare quotes, but as Dan Bloom said, “sneer quotes.”

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Woo-hoo, another scare-quotes post! Sorry I missed it earlier. Whatever name they may be given, they have a purpose, which is more than simply to put emphasis on the word. The purpose is to call into question the veracity of the term as used in that context. So, “religious liberty” is put into quotes to indicate that the writer questions the meaning of the word as used by one of the parties in his story. It is not to indicate that the meaning is disputed from a neutral point of view, but that the writer disputes the meaning. They are not neutral: They have a point of view.

    The case of “natural” is a little weird. There can be no doubt that natural family planning is totally natural, at least from a technological standpoint. The inconsistent use of quotes is also confusing. Perhaps the quotes mean that the writer believes that all family planning is somehow equally manipulative of nature and in that sense equally unnatural. Or, as a corollary, perhaps it means that the writer disputes the seemingly pejorative imputation that other methods are unnatural.

  • cvg

    My guess is the quotes were used due to a perceived low effective rate. A stat or two on effectiveness of the methods under this umbrella may have been nice.

    The only other thing I could think about is natural may subsume more that one technique. This is a stretch.

  • Maureen

    Amusingly, advertising studies show that most Americans are more likely to believe something put in quotes is true than false, which is why many stores put things in quotes in their print ads like “The Best X in Town”.

    So scare quotes may actually promote instead of scare.

  • Rachel K

    Sari and cvg, if that were the case, I’d think that they would scare quote “family planning” instead–the naturalness isn’t in question, but the ability to use it to plan family size is. Of course, natural “family planning” looks a lot clunkier than “natural” family planning, and natural family “planning” just looks cruelly sarcastic.

    It may also be that the reporter is associating “natural” with “non-chemical”/”non-hormonal,” and is thus scare-quoting “natural” because NFP isn’t the only non-hormonal method of family planning out there. IIRC, there’s some new non-hormonal IUD that’s touting itself as natural, and some promotional materials for Essure say that it’s a natural method of sterilization because it’s non-surgical.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Maureen,

    Have they studied whether the findings in advertising generalize to other areas, such as news reporting? They might, but I read adverts in a totally different manner than other material. But that may just be me.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I found the graphic funny. It says “the definitive guide” and then it says “revised edition.” Why does something definitive need to be revised?

  • http://danbloom888.blogspot.com Dan Bloom

    A few more possible substitutes for “scare quotes” as a term in the future: in addition to the very good “smear quotes” and “sneer quotes” also consider: “fear quotes” or “poke quotes” or “leer quotes” or “cookie cutter quotes” or “anti-quotes” or “moot quotes” or, in Yiddish, “schmear quotes” as in ”a schmear of cream cheese on your bagel, sir?”

    Mollie: I liked your calling all this a “scare quotes epidemic” — epidemic! — and it’s true, with the advent of the internet, lowercase by the way, and blogs, and news sites online, the epidemic has gone fullblast haywire and scare quotes are used all over the place now, and even the term itself — SCARE QUOTES — completely meaningless and ill-coined in the 1920s — is used as IF people know the meaning of the term and nobody does. Everyone is playing follow the leader, follow the crowd, use the term that every grad school student says is cool and now the SQ term is so embedded in the culture that it will be hard to dislodge it. But that is my intent: does anyone want to join me in my ”mission impossible” (poke quotes mine) to dislodge the SQ term from our ”common vocabulary” abd replace it with a more meaningful and logical term, whatever term we the people decide works best? We need a crowd to do this; I cannot do it alone. At the moment, most people think I’m ”nuts” (schmear quotes mine). Still, retired and with nothing better to do, I plan to “soldier” on, — or should that be “solder on” ?

  • http://danbloom888.blogspot.com Dan Bloom

    Maureen, above, you may be on to something very important here re your comment:

    “Amusingly, advertising studies show that most Americans are more likely to believe that something put in quotes is true rather than false, which might be why many stores put things in quotes in their print ads like “The Best ‘X’ in Town”. So ”scare quotes” may actually ”promote” instead of ”scare.”

    That might be why scare quotes (sic) — [I refuse to call them scare quotes anymore, as part of my PR campaign to eradicate the term] — are used so often in store signs and office signs and even on business cards to emphaszie something, Maureen, so yes they are NOT really scare quotes (sic again) but more like promotion and emphasis quotes. One grammar guy calls them “shout quotes”.

    But that’s advertising and signage culture. For newspaper headlines and oped articles, we are going down a slippery slope if we do not find a “cure” (poke quotes mine) for this epidemic that Mollie has so well archived here with her several good posts on this issue. But until the New York Times Style Desk (Phil Corbett is the guy there) or the Associated Press Style Book editors (Ted Anthony is one of the guys there) clean this mess up with some directives for newspaper and website editors to follow, we will remain in a scary mess and it will only get worse. This “epidemic” (emphasis quotes mine) is slowly killing the culture and “the written word” (scare quotes sic mine).

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    For more and more of these, see The “Blog” of “Unncessary” Quotation Marks.

  • http://plogspot101.blogspot.com Dan Bloom

    Mollie, and Mark Silk and Kevin Eckstrom, and everyone else still here: there was a very cartoon strip in the newspapers last week, from the people who still do the synidcated “B.C.” strip after the original creator passed away and the date was for July 18 if you want to see the visuals. It’s very to the point about the rabid use (over-use, as Mollie says) of so-called “scare quotes” (sic) — I write “sic” there because I refuse now to use this term except to point out how meaningless and ill-coined the old term is: scary? now way! — and in the cartoon there are two “ants” talking to each other while on a stroll through the park, and panel 1 has one ant say to the other: “Today’s politics focus too much on division.” Panel 2 has the other ant reply: “What makes you say that?” and the final panel 3 has the first ant saying “It’s just in the air” …and then look down and see two drinking fountains, separate drinking fountains, in the park where they have stopped for a drink of water on a hot day, and one fountain says “Conservatives Only” and the other fountain says “Libeerals Only.”

    Mollie, this sums of the use of ”scare quotes” (sic) debate very well, no? Try to find the cartoon and maybe post the graphic one day here. It’s an equal opportunity liberal/conservative leftwing/rightwing bashing cartoon and very well done with the two separate drinking fountains for “them” and “us”. The SQ debate is all about this.

    PS: the cartoon’s website at “gocomics” if you google search it has over 50 commnents from readers, too. Obviously the comic struck a chord. On both sides of the aisle!

  • http://www.gocomics.com/bc/2012/07/18 Dan Bloom

    Mollie, you can see the comic strip visuals if you click on my blogwebsite link link in this comment here:

    http://www.gocomics.com/bc/2012/07/18

  • http://danbloom888.blogspot.com Dan Bloom

    Epidemic of ‘scare quotes’ threatens religious, political liberty, I wrote in a new piece for the SDJW, not published yet.

    In the long run-up to the American presidential elections in November, an epidemic of so-called “scare quotes” is turning political punditry and commentary
    by those on the left and right into a mockery of democracy and liberty. And the epidemic not only threatens to infect and undermine the entire political
    process of this country, but it is also invading the religious realm as well. When someone on the left or right doesn’t like the language of the opposing side,
    the writer often put the 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 talking about Jewish issues of the Orthodox or Conservative Jews or Reform ”platforms” (see, I just
    used a scare quote to give you an example of how can be used!), he or she often resorts to the scare quotes methodology to score some points with
    those who already agree or to mock those he or she dislikes on the other side of the pulpit.

    The scare quotes epidemic must be stopped, and strong measures must be taken to rein in this sloppy and incorrect use of language and punctuation. Mollie
    Ziegler Hemingway, writing in a recent blog post for GetReligion and headlined “Scare quote epidemic spreads to ‘natural’ family planning,” referred to our earlier
    discussion of the scare quotes problem, noting: “It’s been almost a month since a reader sent in a discussion of the use of scare quotes [that appeared in] the San Diego Jewish World.”

    Ziegler Hemingway, a Christian blogger, said 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 recently had 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 leftwingers and rightwingers, conservatives and liberals — and in Jewish circles, Orthodox and Conservative, Reform and non-practicing, agnostics and haredim.

    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 [and Jewish author] 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 the New Jersey Jewish News and wire
    stories from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York. America, both left and right, of all religious stripes, has gone ”scare quotes” crazy.

    How stop the epidemic? A recent “B.C.” comic strip in the daily newspapers on July 18 nationwide 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 — one labeled “Conservatives Only” and the other labelled “Liberals Only.” This kind of scare quotes ”scaremongering” (scare quotes mine)
    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 all of us 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

    Mollie, Mark Silk says he prefers to call them “caveat quotes” rather than scare quotes. GOOD IDEA?

  • Dan Bloom

    And Mollie, a retired newspaper publisher born in Taiwan but longtime USA citizen, Dr Koh, a cardio doctor, tells me today: Dear Dan,

    This is very interesting. The first time I heard the term “Scare Quotes” (used here to quote the quote and not to scare or smear anybody).

    This kind of subtle or subliminal messages do work well on people’s subconscious. Scare quotes subconsciously alert readers that something is not right within the quotation marks.

    Thanks for the forwarding.


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