Monday, March 21, 2011

Radical Radiational Pragmatics - Japanese Nuclear Edition

Like everybody else in Japan (or elsewhere), I have been reading and hearing about radiation levels around the troubled nuclear power plant. It cannot really be good news - I mean, what do you expect from a nuclear plant that has been hit by a huge earthquake, and then by a massive tsunami. There have been a couple of explosions. Radiation levels keep going up. Meanwhile, tap water in the area has been found contaminated; so have milk and spinach now.

But it is not like the end of the world, really. The whole incident is pretty much confined to that particular area. You just want to know the facts - just how things are.

And that's exactly what we are not getting from Japanese officials. You are all sympathetic at first: yeah, of course things are chaotic. But now, over a week later, you start wondering, what the hell is this, really?

They repeat abstruse phrases like 'The radiation level is higher than what is considered safe, but it is not critical, so it should not be a matter to be concerned'. But of course they themselves are concerned, which is why they are telling that to everybody in the first place. This is a remarkably interesting use of language.

As I was listening to yet another strange official statement, I was reminded of a passage from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which goes like this:

'I know you don't mean any harm. But there's just too much talk like this. I hear it all the time, it's been allowed to go on, and it's not right.... The problem, as I see it, is that you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.'

I think there is a little more than the Gricean maxims business in this 'telling and not telling'. In any case, it is not working; am I witnessing a Japanese pragmatics meltdown?

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