Most reasonable folks would agree that language matters. Words and language can be used to both clarify and obscure important issues. In this regard, the argument supporting the Roosevelt Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) is an example of how language is used to manufacture consent, provide positive coverage for predatory real estate interests, and obscure and camouflage the painful realities associated with a form of economic growth that will result in immigrant and working class expulsions from employment and place of residence.
Back in the day, George Orwell coined the term doublespeak in his dark anti-utopian novel, 1984. Doublespeak, simply put, is the willful distortion and manipulation of language to obscure intent and outcomes. In short, doublespeak is linguistic window dressing that transforms a negative situation, event, or proposal into a sanitized version that is represented as positive and/or non-controversial. A simple illustration brings the point home. Switch the harsh term “firing workers” with the softer phrase “downsizing employees.” Observe how a difficult and painful situation – for workers – is transformed into an efficient, and neutral management decision. Language, in this example, is used to cloud unequal labor relations and administrative outcomes between management and vulnerable workers.
In marketing the extension of the BID along Roosevelt Avenue, supporters claim that the economy, the neighborhood, and the common good will harvest a bountiful crop of positive economic and social outcomes. These bold assertions can be judged by unpacking key “economic development” phrases and claims that are strategically sprinkled throughout the BID’s webpage.
ECONOMY: Claim – The BID will “support business growth.” This phrase evokes the notion that business growth is generally a positive outcome for the local and city-wide economy. What goes unsaid is that in a global economy, like New York’s, business growth in northwestern Queens is fueled by the unregulated and speculative growth of the tourist industry. This growth trend feeds on “flexible labor markets” and a non-unionized work environment that accelerates income inequality and diminishes the prospect of a socially equitable and sustainable economy.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Claim – The BID will cultivate and support “neighborhood marketing.” This phrase evokes the notion that neighborhood marketing will trigger a virtuous circle of local economic activity and community stability. What goes unsaid is that marketing schemes crafted by a BID dominated by property owners – in search of higher economic returns – will encourage the growth of firms, goods and services that appeal to a more prosperous and upscale consumer-base. This will result in the eventual disappearance of small immigrant businesses — as a result of rising land values and the growing presence of national brand stores and specialty niche shops. In short, “neighborhood marketing” devastates the existing viability of small-scale entrepreneurs, fundamentally undermines ethnic economies, transforms local immigrant landscapes, and destabilizes the current meaning and lived experience of community.
COMMON GOOD: Claim – The BID will “improve quality of life.” This phrase evokes the notion that “quality of life” is a neutral term the benefits one and all. In northwestern Queens, historically the term was used – back in the 80s and 90s – as a verbal Trojan horse for criticizing immigrants by linking our newest New Yorkers to the physical and social “degradation” of local neighborhoods. Once again this term is being used by local opinion- and decision-makers to demonize immigrants and local indigenous economic activity. This marshalling of language sets the groundwork for upscale real estate growth and immigrant expulsion as a value free process that structures the necessary conditions for progress and the common good.
The BID’s marketing use of doublespeak favors specific economic interests associated with real estate driven growth. The language is both partisan and instrumental. And in the final analysis, it’s all about manufacturing uninformed and muddled consent, and the selling of a questionable product – the Roosevelt Avenue BID. Caveat emptor, buyer beware because all the glitters is not gold!
By Arturo Ignacio Sánchez
Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is chairperson of the Newest New Yorkers Committee of Queens Community Board 3. He has also taught courses on immigration and entrepreneurship at Barnard College, The City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, and New York University.