Monday, May 4, 2009

Spin: A Consumer's Guide

Trying to define "spin" is rather like trying to define obscenity, in Justice Potter Stewart's famous evasion: we may have a difficult time saying exactly what it is, but we're sure we know it when we see it.

We're "spun" all the time, of course—in politics, in advertising, in the language of business and organizations, and on television—we're constantly barraged by messages aimed at influencing us. It's hard to be oblivious to it. Perhaps that's why, for the past two years, dozens of undergraduates have enrolled in my course, "Spin: A Consumer's Guide," as a way of coming to terms with all the messages directed their way. Along the way, I have seen them wrestle with what, exactly, we're talking about when we talk about spin. They're all convinced that they know what it is, but trying to get them to actually nail down a convincing definition always ends up raising as many questions as it answers.

For example, is spin really any different from rhetoric, the classical art of persuasion? Stanley Fish doesn't think so. Writing in his New York Times blog, he savages a book on spin by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Brooks Jackson, arguing that "spin – the pronouncing on things from an interested angle – is . . . the very content of thinking and judging." In other words, he argues, each of us spins our own world into existence whenever we think about it and whenever we try to communicate our vision of that world, so it's a delusion to think that you can neatly separate "spin" from "fact" or "truth."

In a sense, Fish is right. It's impossible to avoid spinning.

To see why, consider the metaphor of a major-league baseball pitcher, with a variety of pitches in his arsenal. If he imparts topspin on the ball as he releases it, the result is a sinkerball that drops suddenly as it approaches the batter. If he imparts underspin to the ball it tends to sail, or seem to rise as it nears the batter—a rising fastball. Curveballs, screwballs, and sliders result from different kinds of side-spin. All of them are meant to be difficult to hit.

Ah, but what happens when the pitcher throws a knuckleball—a pitch with no spin at all? That's hard to hit too, as it behaves unpredictably, and dances around as the winds affect it. So no spin can be just as "deceptive" as extreme spin. In fact, the only way to make a pitched ball easy to hit is to impart to it a gently predictable rotation that steadies it against the breeze but doesn't make it dive or rise. In other words, you have to spin it to make it easy to hit. To bring the metaphor back to language, you could say that clear communication requires effort and artifice—effort and artifice that, by definition, produces spin.

Okay, so far Fish is right. But, as you can probably sense, he begs the real question.

To return to our baseball metaphor, when a pitcher throws you a curveball, or a slider, or a high hard one that rises out of the strike zone, his intention is to make you swing and miss. Spin, in the popular sense that we're used to thinking about, similarly seeks to make us miss something. That's what I'll be writing about here.

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