Are there any bits of American campaign jargon more annoying than the word “optics”?
It’s inescapable this week, thanks to hurricane Isaac: Republicans in Tampa are worried about how it will look if television pictures show them partying while the storm wreaks destruction on Gulf Coast communities.
But wait! Did you notice how I just managed to explain the GOP’s dilemma without using the word “optics”? That’s because it’s a staggeringly pointless piece of jargon that just means “how things look” or “public perception”. Jargon is occasionally defensible when it expresses, in a syllable or two, something that would otherwise take paragraphs to explain. “Optics” doesn’t do that. Yet here, courtesy of Patrick Gavin at Politico, are 13 instances of campaign personnel or journalists using it in the last few days. (For more, just read Politico any day: its writers love the term.)
“So maybe the biggest problem Republicans will have is optics,” as CNN’s Carol Costello put it. “You can’t have Kid Rock tearing down the house while Isaac tears down houses.”
Journalism professor Jay Rosen is surely right that “optics” is a prime symptom of the Washington media mindset he calls “the savvy” – “that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, ‘with it’, and unsentimental in all things political.” Such special terms help foster a bond between actual campaign insiders and journalists who want to feel like insiders. As Ben Zimmer noted in a New York Times “On Language” column on “optics” a couple of years ago – he traced the term’s birth, as a piece of political jargon, to 1978 – it also sounds scientific because, in its original meaning, it is. It thus gives chatter about campaign tactics the appearance of a highly technical body of knowledge, like advanced physics, and makes its users look good.
You might even say that “optics” is largely a matter of optics, although, of course, I never would.
One sinister aspect of all this is the way that “optics” helps lend the problem of appearances a sort of stand-alone reality, shorn of all context. Defining the Isaac/Tampa situation as “a problem of optics” inevitably implies that it’s merely a problem of optics: an embarrassing coincidence, as when newspapers inadvertently juxtapose news stories and ads in tasteless ways. But that’s not the case here. Images of weather damage alongside convention-hall balloon drops would be a problem for a reason: because the appalling government failures of Katrina happened under the last Republican president. And because Paul Ryan has proposed deep cuts to disaster relief funds. And because the GOP has sought to hold hurricane-relief funding hostage to its tiny-government crusades. Even TV footage of Isaac not proving disastrous – of, say, New Orleans’ reinforced levees holding up – would draw attention to the helpful role of government in letting societies function, a truth that the Romney campaign has set itself resolutely against.
More abstractly – but no less importantly – pictures of partying delegates alongside hurricane damage could only emphasize the fundamental disconnection between modern political campaigning and most of the rest of reality. They would underline that 21st-century conventions are, indeed, pure “optics”, floating free from the facts of most people’s lives. Even if the Republicans didn’t have a hugely problematic record when it comes to disaster relief, the juxtaposition would risk throwing the strange, choreographed pointlessness of campaigning into stark relief.
This is certainly a problem. But it isn’t a problem of optics.