Undue Process

‘Process’ is a dishonest and deceitful buzz-word, used by people to conceal something nasty or embarrassing

I hate the word “process”. It’s always concealing something unlovely or embarrassing. Things that take the word have something to hide. “Processed cheese” isn’t cheese. “Process music” isn’t music – as in György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique, a piece of “music” consisting of 100 metronomes set to different tempos and allowed to wind down.

A “processing fee” is, almost by definition, surreptitious: an extra lump of money charged to the customer in a complicated transaction for no other reason than that the customer is unlikely to notice. The Middle East “peace process” was certainly a process. But one side of that process defined “peace” as the destruction of the other – a fact assiduously ignored by those invested in the process.

The word’s dishonesty becomes even more egregious when used as a verb. “We’re processing your application” means: “Your application is sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk and won’t be touched for weeks.”

I can remember disliking the word even as a boy. Something about its sound – an awkward trochée with that slithery cess – associated it in my mind with the words “abscess” and “cesspool”. Dislike intensified into detestation when, after leaving Edinburgh University, the only job I could find bore the title “Annex Processor”. I held that job for three dreadful years and sometimes wonder whether I was served right for disdaining a perfectly good word.

Having since moved into the field of politics, I’ve learned another use of “process”, and although it’s just as disagreeable to my ear as it always was, it’s splendidly useful. It is “process” used as an adjective – as in “process story”.

This is a story in which a journalist attempts to elevate a procedural impropriety on the part of a public figure to the level of substantive wrongdoing. In a process story, it’s clear to all concerned that the journalist disapproves of the public figure’s policy decision. But because that decision was both legal and defensible, the journalist emphasises the supposedly questionable way in which it was carried out. Thus, while the journalist can’t impugn the policy itself, he can cast it in a suspicious light by questioning the process through which it was effected. Such stories are vapid and contemptible, and they deserve the word they’ve got.

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