Since I write occasionally, a plea by 33 writers to the New York Times to stop using the phrase “quid pro quo” in reference to the conduct underlying the Trump impeachment proceedings was curious. Sure, it was Latin, so maybe they were just a bunch of American English jingoists, or perhaps concerned about cultural appropriation. As it turned out, that wasn’t at all their concern.
A plea from 33 writers: Please use language that will clarify the issues at hand.
Please stop using the Latin phrase “quid pro quo” regarding the impeachment inquiry. Most people don’t understand what it means, and in any case it doesn’t refer only to a crime. Asking for a favor is not a criminal act; we frequently demand things from foreign countries before giving them aid, like asking them to improve their human rights record.
Is it true that “most people” are so unfamiliar with this phrase as to make it obfuscating? It’s possible, not that they offer any evidence to support the assertion that most people read “quid pro quo” and think to themselves, “what they heck are they talking about?”
And it’s similarly true that a “quid pro quo” isn’t, in itself, a crime. But being a lawyer, it appears that these 33 writers fail to grasp that it isn’t meant to be, in itself, a crime, but an element of a crime.
Please use words that refer only to criminal behavior here. Use “bribery” or “extortion” to describe Mr. Trump’s demand to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, making it very clear that this is a crime. The more we hear words that carry moral imputations, the more we understand the criminal nature of the act.
Bribery and extortion are, obviously, crimes, but they are conclusory words. Whether the conduct constitutes bribery or extortion is the “issue at hand,” and the only way to determine that is to consider whether the elements of the crime are met. One such element is, dare I write it, whether there was a quid pro quo, with the quid or the quo being something prohibited.
So these writers aren’t really asking for the substitution of equivalents, but to substitute an element of a crime for the conclusion of a crime, an entirely different matter. They then, however, make their purpose clear, that they plead for words that not only address something entirely different, but words that carry “moral imputations.”
To the extent these writers are conveying anything comprehensible, it’s that they don’t want writers to address whether the elements of a crime have been met, but rather to use words to impute moral condemnation regardless of whether the elements of the crime have been met.
And there’s more.
Please also stop using the phrase “dig up dirt.” This slang has unsavory connotations. Instead, please use the more formal, direct and powerful phrase “create false evidence,” or “find incriminating evidence” or the simpler “tell lies about.”
Words make a difference.
Words do, indeed, make a difference. The difference between “create false evidence” or “tell lies about” and “dig up dirt” or “find incriminating evidence” isn’t that one is “more formal, direct and powerful,” but that they mean very different things. If there is incriminating evidence to be found, then there is nothing false about it. It’s not a lie to dig up dirt, if dirt it is.
These are parlous times, and we look to public voices for dignity, intelligence and gravitas. Please use precise and forceful language that reveals the struggle in which we now find ourselves. It’s a matter of survival.
“Parlous” is quite a surprising word choice, given their gripe about people not knowing what “quid pro quo” means. But more to the point, is their plea one for “dignity, intelligence and gravitas,” or are these 33 of the most incompetent wordsmiths ever? They conflate the language used to describe an element of wrongful conduct with the conclusory name of a crime. They confuse incriminating evidence with false evidence. They really suck at using words, and beg the New York Times to suck as much as they do?
Their real plea, however, isn’t about the word choice, but the overarching message. Trump is guilty. From their perspective, it’s not entirely clear what he’s guilty of, as non-lawyers don’t belabor the troubling details of elements of crimes, like “quid pro quo.” Rather, this is more about “it feels like a crime,” and since it’s impeachment, that’s close enough.
As it happens, I take no issue with the conclusion. I do, however, choose to reach it honestly, by being informed of the details and reaching a conclusion based on facts. These 33 writers apparently find that intolerable, as people might misunderstand the words that reflect the accurate details and, god forbid, not reach the “right” conclusion.
Their plea is for the New York Times to not let that happen, not provide the words that could be used to confuse people, manipulate their understanding of the conduct or the process, and open the door to someone deciding that Trump didn’t commit an impeachment-worthy offense. Words make a difference, and they plead for the words that will lead inexorably to the outcome they, these 33 writers, want rather than words that merely accurately describe what happened and allow readers to decide for themselves.
These 33 people may be writers, but there is another word that characterizes them as well: liars. And they call their lies “dignity.”
In fairness, these are not 33 writers who are also lawyers, so perhaps they just don’t grasp that their plea is fatally flawed, their word gripes are legally ignorant. It could well be that most people don’t know the meaning of the Latin phrase, “quid pro quo,” just as they don’t know the meaning of “res ipsa loquitur,” and thus can’t fathom how an honest recitation of facts might lead people of integrity to reach the correct conclusion not because the writers have lied to guarantee it, but because an accurate recitation of the facts makes it so.