“Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times. This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.
Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceived by the public. Freq. in political contexts.” That’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s reading of the usage, which dates to 1973.
Optics vs. reality: Something looks bad, whether it is or not. The formulation good optics is rarer, and points to the default connotation of optics as a troubling condition of perception.
The language brigade has been on optics for a while. In 2010, Ben Zimmer wrote a take-down of the term optics in the Times. He even cites William Safire, in his final language column, ruminating on the emergence of the usage.
In a 2012 Guardian column on the then-forthcoming U.S. election, Oliver Burkeman cited Ben Zimmer’s earlier piece. His opening salvo: Are there any bits of American campaign jargon more annoying than the word “optics”?
The come-on floating over Burkeman’s essay reads “‘Optics’ is not just ghastly jargon coined by D.C. insiders. It also unwittingly describes politics’ disconnect from people’s reality.”
This use of optics has had a new boost this summer. A public exchange between former president Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch created a tempest on a tarmac. A long article in the Times concluded with a quote from the former Obama adviser David Axelrod, who had tweeted that “it was foolish to create such optics.”
The National Review took exception not only to the meeting, but to this use of optics. A pull quote in David Harsanyi’s essay reads “Acknowledging that the meeting was bad ‘optics’ is a way for Democrats to intimate that there was nothing unethical about it.”
Patrick Healy reported in the July 26th New York Times that should Hillary Clinton win the White House, former president Bill Clinton “may not even have an office in the West Wing, given the undesirable optics” of the unprecedented situation.
Ghastly jargon, political evasion, or rhetorical sedative, the rise of optics is a reminder that when something doesn’t look right there are consequences regardless of the probity of the actors. Optics is about impressions, appearance, the way someone might interpret what is seen. In that, optics isn’t necessarily about facts.
Caveat lector: You don’t have to be a national figure to be subject to this sense of optics. If you want to put 10 bucks in the church collection basket but you only have a twenty in your wallet, what do you do? In theory, you can drop in your twenty and fish out two fives. You’ve made a 10-dollar contribution, but the optics are terrible.
Day-to-day life obligates us to avoid creating unwanted optical illusions. But in this vertiginous election run, we’re in need of guides to help us distinguish appearance from reality, and reality from reality TV.
If that’s a question of optics, bring on the optometrists.
Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano
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