Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I Agonized Over This Post

My friend Russ will occasionally use his blog, Attorney-Wastrel, to cite rhetorical phrases or moves that he would like to see permanently retired.

If I may nominate a phrase, I'm pretty tired of anyone using the verb "agonize" to describe his or her mixed or ambivalent feelings about some decision.

Recently I finished listening to Erik Larson's "The Devil and the White City" on CD. I mostly appreciated and enjoyed the book, though I have my own misgivings about reading true-crime books or seeing true-crime films. Larson writes an epilogue in which he cites his sources, which is good. He then proceeds to tell us how he "agonized" over whether or not to include two descriptions of actual murders for which his subject was convicted.

His agony apparently had little to do with whether or not such descriptions pandered to the prurient interests of his readers and less with whether or not it was exploitative of those who genuinely suffered horrific torture and death. No, apparently the agony is that someone might accuse him of being a less than fastidious fact checker and lower their opinion of him as a careful researcher.

On the whole, I think that trying to keep the fuzzy line between history and imaginative fiction even somewhat present is a good thing, so I don't fault Larson for explaining himself. But I do think his rhetoric is a bit inflated. "Agony" is defined as "extreme and generally prolonged pain; intense physical or mental suffering."

The problem with inflationary rhetoric--as I've mentioned before and many others have said--is that it tends to cheapen comparative and superlative words. If Larson suffered agony over trying to decide whether to describe a gruesome murder, what word is left to describe that which is suffered by, say, someone who is the victim of a gruesome murder?

More often than not, when someone tells me he or she "agonized" over a decision, I usually interpret this as the person saying, "This was a tough decision, so in an effort to preemptively answer critics of it, I will say how difficult it was and how much it hurt me to make it." I'm not likely to respect someone's decision because he used this phrase any more than I would the person who said, "It was a borderline call that I thought about carefully." In fact, I may be more suspicious of the former. What this phrase really tells me more often than not is that the person who made the decision himself has some misgivings or doubts--that he feels intensely self-conscious about it.

The phrase also bugs me because I think it carries a fallacious assumption that there is any logical connection between the amount of effort that went into a decision and its correctness. I've known people who "agonized" over decisions not because they didn't know what to do (or what was right) but because they didn't want to do what they felt they should. Rhetorically this phrase can mean, then, "Hey, I know I sold out my conscience, but at least I troubled over the decision before I did it." [I'm not saying this is the case with Larson; I don't know him.]


T.C. Truffin said...

Thanks for this, Ken. When I listened to Larson's book, I, too, found the coda to take something away from the book, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Now I can.

Laura Morefield said...

While I can indeed imagine that one might agonize over whether or not to send troops into battle, or whether or not to condemn another to death...short of that, it's just a tough call.

Good insight on the self-justification the cliche tries to subvert.