Not about censorship, but about how we think

Many people have pet words (or phrases) to whose misuse they take particular exception. Mine is the pair of words “not about”, as in:

It’s not about piracy. It’s about opportunity Source
It’s not about cigarettes. It’s about liberty Source
It’s not about coming into schools criticising, it’s about showing them different ways of cooking food Source
it’s not about conformity, it’s about learning how to live in a community Source
it was not about “bypassing councils”, but aimed at getting local people and the councils together. Source
The abortion row in the US is not about babies. It’s about power-mad grown-ups who despise each other Source
The clause is not about individuals, but about regulating those who put advertising on the net Source
the treaty is not about enlargement but about further creating a framework to achieve full political and economic union Source

What “not about” lets you do is trick people without having to lie.

Imagine X is some proposal to do something or other, and you care about what its consequences would be. If you hear “X is not about Y; X is about Z”, you may well think that Y, whatever it happens to be, is unaffected by the proposal to do X, that X doesn’t concern Y. Certainly the implication is that X affects Z more than it affects Y.

Further imagine that it’s possible to say that a proposal has a main topic and some side effects, that there’s some reasonable basis on which the consequences of a proposal like X may be divided between two categories, “main topic” (or “effect”) and “side-effects”. It’d love to get out the Boolean set theory notation at this point, but this character set is too small to contain it.

The problem with the “X is not about Y” construction is that it sounds like it means something like “X does not concern Y” or “Y is not a side-effect of X”, but literally it means “Y is not the main topic of X”. Y may well be a a side-effect of X, in which case it would be clearly false to say “X does not concern Y”, but that’s textually slightly different. When Y is a side-effect of X, “X is not about Y” is true but liable to mislead anyone not considering the words carefully.

It’s not true, as I asked you to imagine above, that the division of the effects of some proposal into a main topic and side-effects is always easy. It could be very subjective, and may well have been done by the person discussing the proposal to further his own interests. The “not about” construct permits a speaker who can identify two or more effects of a proposal to trick people into thinking it lacks all but the one which helps his argument, without saying anything untrue. There should be a moratorium on publishing any statement by a public figure which contains the “about / not-about” formula when used to misleading effect. The effect I desire this article to have is to derail the concentration of those who read it when in future they happen upon the “not about” formula. I hope readers will think “Ah, it’s one of those tricks I read about; I’ll skip to the next paragraph as I’m likely to be about to be misled”.

I met someone who worked for Nectar, a loyalty card aggregator. Nectar collects information about purchases made at Sainsbury, Debenhams and so on. This permits, inter alia, price discrimination: the more Nectar knows about Debenham’s customers, the better discounts may be targetted at those customers less willing and able to pay Debenham’s quoted prices. When I mentioned price discimination to this fellow, he got defensive and said, “Well it’s not about price discrimination.”, and I’m sure it’s true to say that this is not the main consequence of the use of Nectar cards. I asked what this meant, and he just repeated the assertion. I countered with “but it facilitates price discrimination”, and yet again he said “Yes but it’s not about price discrimination.” as though whatever the other consequences of the existence of Nectar cards might have been, the very existence of any other property of the cards sufficed to outweigh this possibly disagreeable one.

Some people are so intellectually corrupt as to need no assistance from phrases such as “not about” in cleaving to the notion that only agreeable consequences exist, but they don’t deserve anyone’s help or connivance.

Update: The point of this article, even if it’s poorly argued, is to make it harder to read the words “not about” without pausing to think. I am starting a collection of misuses of the phrase here.

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