‘Stay alert’ is not precise — but it is meaningful
Those who conflate the two are being disingenuous
“Let me be perfectly clear”. Whenever a politician says that, I inwardly groan and tune out. Because I know what comes next — a word salad of precise sounding official-speak, usually intoned with mock seriousness and the sort of slow patronising lilt that you might use to address a recalcitrant five year old.
But what “being clear” is all about isn’t always a straightforward matter. For instance, a word can be both perfectly clear and yet also imprecise. If I describe someone as a “tall man” there is nothing unclear about what I am saying, despite the fact that I am unable to give you a precise definition of where short gives way to tall.
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A five-foot tall man is short. A six-foot tall man is tall. Somewhere between these measurements, the one gives way to the other. Some statements are perfectly clear without being precise. And some statements — like those commonly made on the Today programme — are precise without being the slightest bit clear.
Take Boris Johnson’s new Covid meme, “Stay alert, Control the virus, Save Lives”. It has already been widely mocked. “Ooh Careful, Mind how you go, Be lucky,” as one wag described it. But when Nicola Sturgeon says that she does not know what “stay alert” means, she is surely being subtly disingenuous.
Of course she knows what it means. Because like many phrases we use, its meaning is not generated by its precision. The problem here is not one of meaning. It is just that that there are all sorts of circumstances that we don’t know how it applies. Can I go sunbathing? Can I go for a (socially distanced) walk with my mates?
Releasing a whole society from lockdown is an extremely complicated business. The safety rules concerning the myriad of things that people want to do with their freedom, the many millions of different ways that people make a living, cannot be accurately captured by a single phrase.
Nor indeed, by a thousand page government document for that matter. To this extent people will have to learn to take some responsibility for the way they manage their lives with respect to this threat. Meaningful yet necessarily imprecise language is the only way of doing this.
Those who (deliberately) confuse the meaningful with the precise are being smartarses — often legalistic smartarses — whose language has not caught up with the nature of this threat. Ultimately, we do not know how this novel pathogen is affecting our infinitely complex society and we should not pretend that we have the precise language for it. In such circumstances, “stay alert” seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to advise. And an irresponsible thing to attack.
I think the tone and content of Boris Johnsons address reflected his belief system of “small government” and the freedoms of individuals, that is why the message was “advice” rather than diktat. I suspect telling people how to micro manage their day to day lives does not sit comfortably with the PM. Boris wants to roll back the thought that the Government must act on every issue, his wooly address showed this. The government does not have all the answers and even if they did he does not want to take away our freedom to come up with our own answers.
I was a science teacher for many years enabling enthusiastic naive youngsters to carry out experiments; should I tell them all the time what every single hazard could be? No, what I did was told them to think safety – a phrase as meaningless as stay safe, but an instruction that encourage the learners to think about the work and not blindly try to follow myriad safety dictats.
Spot on! Maybe he should redirect his comments to the mainstream media and add. “Grow up!”
Having to interpret some of these instructions, rather than slavishly follow them may help some people think more about what they do, rather than waiting to be told.
Its going to be a long painful road if the government has to Nanny 70M people through this!
Staying alert is a totally reasonable approach but also we need to get on and let our society return to a more normal way of living. As the Australian PM has said get out from under the duvet and get back to work. Stay Alert.
Well said, Giles. The public understand the stay at home message and are perfectly capable of understanding how they must stay aware of the dangers of CV when they go out.
“Stay Alert” might be clear but it is totally inappropriate. That’s why it is so laughable. It may be useful for crossing roads or opening dodgy emails or avoiding online banking scams, but not for avoiding a viral infection. That’s why most of the country thinks it is a joke, and why the other countries in the union are wisely staying well clear. Because the slogan is nonsense the rest of the advice is already discounted. The predilection is to be sceptical. If then the advice had been clear or precise or both then maybe the confusion would have abated, but no, the very opposite happened. People were more confused after BJ’s address than they were before. It left people with genuine questions, for example about the safety of returning to work, the availability of public transport, what to do with the kids, why they couldn’t see their family but they could go to the park. In tourist areas people were totally blindsided – they don’t want thousands of people descending on them when they cannot look after them in a safe way. It is uncoordinated – you can drive to the Lake District but not to Snowdonia! UK needs to come out of lockdown together but the way the messaging has been done is a joke. If you say no Gov’t could manage it then look at Singapore – clear and precise and backed up by numbers that are actually believable.
Stay Alert- Its Context deliberately ignored by those with other agendas!
I understand it to mean-
Don’t think its back to normal-
Think-and take care.
Well said Giles!
Nicola Sturgeon irresponsible? Surely not.
… BBC vox pop on R4 Today at 06:05 : angry prole female whines in line with the general BBC whine : “””You can’t be alert and look out for something that you can’t see”” …
We will definitely became less “alert” when the pay check at the end of the month will start dwindling. That is a language everyone understands.
Well said. There are far too many vocal smart arses around at the moment
Well made points and indeed this not a reason for criticising the government. However, it is entirely appropriate to criticise them for making up rules that make no logical sense. For example, they say that you may meet (social distancing) one and only one person outside of your household for a walk in the park in the morning – perhaps with your Auntie. However, if you also wish to walk with your Uncle (who lives with her) you must do so in the afternoon. This is clearly bonkers. Similarly, while you may walk in the park (social distancing) with a non-household member, you must not walk round a golf course (social distancing) with a non-household member, occasionally hitting a golf ball. You are encouraged to social distance with as many people as necessary in an enclosed work space, if you cannot work from home. It is madness on stilts
It is also obvious based on his interviews this morning that Raab – a member of the Quad who supposedly wrote the rules – doesn’t understand them himself. (BTW It is also still currently written into law that you may not meet anyone outside of your household on your daily 1 hour exercise.)
Also clear that Boris still believes that the Imperial College model (that has been comprehensively shredded as virtually useless) is valid “science” – he still thinks the 500K probable deaths model output was a likely scenario.
People have vastly differing views of their responsibilities and whereas I might agree with you my neighbour may not. Without precise language, society cannot effectively regulate the behaviour of its ‘irresponsible’ citizens.
the problem is that Britain is not an authoritarian collectivist state with a history of micromanaging every aspect of the private sector and people’s private lives. I get the impression that a lot of the government’s critics really wish they were living in China
Quite, Fraser talks about how the impremise need not be meaningless, but then goes on to concede that it is unclear how the new advice applies in any number of situations. When it comes to particular situations, it is then, effectively, lacking in meaning. I think it’s quite smartarse to attack someone’s use of term meaningless when it’s perfectly clear what they meant – and when they used it to provide scrutiny to a gov comms that have been muddled & could prove costly
” Stay alert” is precise. Would you care to give us a two-word phrase which is better as well as being more precise?
I have no problem with meanlig of words e.g. the word faith a sheep has this just before just before a pray is said to allah and its throat is cut bleeding it to death in agony or faith that an imaginary god will welcome us to heaven to praise him/she/it for enernity or faith in the priest who lives in luxury at our expence and becomes obese through glutteny AMEM
On Saturday, I left my house for the first time in a month to shop for food we couldn’t get delivered, and in the shop, the majority of people halted, or stepped back, and smiled as we negotiated past each other while maintaining 2m separation. Except for one man; he obviously couldn’t comprehend the guidelines, or couldn’t care less, making me abruptly change direction or turn around, and this happened four times as we crossed each others’ paths.
Once out, I had to remember to rub my hands with sanitiser, and once home, dispose of the shopping carefully, interspersed with hand-washings.
That is being alert, in place of staying home.
Mr Johnson is a fabricator and a fornicator. Shame on you Mr Fraser.
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