It's been almost a month since a reader sent in a discussion of the use of scare quotes in the San Diego Jewish World by Dan Bloom. He says that his correspondents call them other things, such as "sneer quotes," "horror quotes," "air quotes" and "quote-unquote quotes." And Jon Stewart calls them something that is not family friendly at all. An editor with many years in the business sent along the latest example of the odd use of scare quotes -- although he called them, and I think it's kind of funny and more family friendly than Mr. Stewart's term, "smear quotes." He referred to the use of the quotes as "weird." I must concur.
The example comes from Religion News Service, which sent out an article with the headline "Amid political battle, Catholic bishops promote 'natural' family planning." When it ran in the Huffington Post, it had the headline "Catholic Bishops Promote 'Natural' Family Planning Amid Battle Over Contraception Mandate." The story begins:
Amid a battle with President Obama over a new contraception mandate, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are promoting "natural" family planning -- but will their flock take heed?
And then the story hops back and forth between the use of scare quotes and the use of the term without scare quotes. I'm not entirely sure why. Other than in the use of proper nouns, we get two instances of just natural (without quotes) and then return to the scare quotes once and then back to no scare quotes twice.
Back when we were first pointing out the rather curious scare quote policy of Religion News Service (in which "religious liberty" was getting the treatment), we got some messages defending it. From RNS contributor Mark Silk we were told "the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the 'defenders' may actually be up to something else." Dunh dunh dunh! (Silk suggests that the true motivation of people advocating for religious liberty is partisan.) And RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom backed this up and said "there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s." You can read more on this in my post "Toward a more consistent scare quote policy."
Readers pointed out that if this were truly the policy of RNS, we'd start seeing scare quotes popping up all over the place. Particularly with abortion "rights" and same-sex "marriage." I'm not a big fan of scare quotes, obviously, but if you do defend them around religious liberty, obviously the whole abortion debate is a question of whether the right to abortion exists at all. And the entire marriage debate hinges on whether the marriage of two people of the same sex is an ontological possibility. Some folks say yes. Some folks say no.
I haven't had a chance to see if RNS' policy is becoming consistent across these issues (do let us know if you've seen same-sex marriage or abortion rights get the scare quote treatment) but even that policy wouldn't apply to scare quoting the "natural" in "natural family planning" would it?
I imagine most women understand the difference between family planning that utilizes hormones or implantation of devices and family planning that is based on understanding how your own body works and when you're fertile. And it's not a phrase used only by Catholics. My own fertility book, which is pictured here, is completely secular and it's subtitled: "The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement and Reproductive Health"
Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what got the "natural" put in the penalty box? I'm honestly confused as to what that quote is supposed to signal. And that just further confirms for me that scare quotes should be used sparingly. And that the downside to using them outweighs any benefit. But maybe I'm missing something. What do you think?
ANOTHER UPDATE: At close of business today, RNS sent out its daily transmission that included the story mentioned above with the following note:
Eds: An incompletely edited version of this story moved on July 18. Please use this version instead.
It looks like the new version is identical to the old version except the quotes around "natural" are no longer there and the final quote has an additional line.
Shortly thereafter, Huffington Post updated its story with the new copy. However, they did keep the quote around "natural" in the headline. The link to the Washington Post story still has the old copy and headline.