The Write Stuff
Rooty, Toot, Toot!
Before we can do anything about what’s going on at the southern border, Kamala Harris wants to figure out the “root causes” of the problem. This is a fancy way of saying she wants to know why people undertake the difficult and risky journey to this country in the first place. Washington Post columnist Colbert King, meanwhile, has been following the D.C. government’s attempts to pinpoint the “root causes” of gun violence, while Michael Igel, chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum, already knows what the “root causes” of antisemitic attacks are, and he tells us in a CNN commentary. “The root cause is ignorance,” Igel writes, but, fortunately, “we have a cure for that.” It’s “education.”
Evidently, determining the cause of this or that is no longer sufficient. We have to track down the root cause of some troubling phenomenon, which — let’s face it — does sound more precise and even scientific, so it just has to be better.
There’s even something called root cause analysis. This also sounds rigorous and systematic until you realize it isn’t some brainy experiment done by people in lab coats messing around with test tubes and Bunsen burners and writing up their findings in peer-reviewed journals; it’s just something cooked up by the people who foisted total quality management on an unsuspecting business world in the 1980s.
Of course, no one who is talking about root causes of social problems these days has subjected their thinking to root cause analysis, or any other kind of analysis. They are just throwing the phrase around because they hear everyone else doing it and they think it makes them sound smart.
But I suspect there’s another reason the term is popular nowadays. Talking about finding the root causes of something is also a way to not talk about a lot of other things. If you’re looking for root causes and not just causes, you can dismiss out of hand what other people say are the causes.
Let’s say someone claims the cause of mass murders is the ready availability of guns, and you don’t want to talk about guns. You can disagree by saying, “No, the root cause is actually mental illness,” and thereby change the subject. It’s a way, too, of not having to do anything about the guns.
If someone says the cause of polarization in American politics today is Donald Trump and his divisive rhetoric, you can win that argument, too, by saying that the root cause is a deeper, preexisting division among the American people and that Trump is a mere symptom. That way, you can seem to have won the argument — and you don’t have to talk about Trump.
Of course, if you want to totally flummox your opponent, you can always remind them that David Hume — the greatest philosopher Great Britain ever produced — exploded the whole rational basis for our belief in cause-and-effect relationships, period.
You might win the argument, for what that’s worth.
What you won’t win by taking this highhanded position is friends.
Annoying Word of the Month: Folks. Former President Barack Obama has asked American companies to “call folks out” for supporting changes in state voting laws that he and most Democrats oppose. “Folks,” while a little more respectful than “guys,” is similarly informal and, well, downright folksy. For that reason, it seems forced, especially when the subject is something more or less official, which seems to be why the former president uses it so often. He wants to “sound friendly and approachable” and might have become aware that he can sometimes seem somewhat aloof. In any case, the use of “folks” is catching on. Now Alabama’s Republican governor is blaming “unvaccinated folks” for the surge in COVID-19 cases in her state, while The Washington Post, in its coverage of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s 75th wedding anniversary, tells us that “luminaries and regular folks” helped the Carters celebrate. At least when used in that way, we can see how condescending “folks” can sound.
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