Thursday, February 09, 2012

Plain speaking

Andy Walsh writes about his running partner
The idea is as follows. Whenever Dave has a meeting with a representative of any of the abovementioned agencies, he takes with him his Penalty Box, into which the relevant factotum must pay a forfeit if she uses any of the following expressions:

acceptable (or unacceptable); appropriate (or inappropriate); empower(ing); person centred (or person oriented); developmental; non-judgemental; rights-based; forward-looking ; in partnership. If a project or service is ever said to be rolled out then Dave claims a double forfeit. And if any mention of the date is made in such a way as to imply it has a particular moral relevance then that is triple. Hence if a social worker were to say of his opinion that it is “judgemental and not an appropriate comment to make in this, the 21st Century” then he’d hit paydirt.
Dave may be an angry man, but I have to respect his spirit and intelligence.
Dave’s strategy has a pleasing consequence, one that is more than merely financial. He has discovered that in being denuded of the above expressions the social worker, probation officer and counsellour suffers a pleasing paralysis of expression and of thought.Meetings that used to take several hours are now over in minutes. It has become obvious to him that the Wittgensteinians have a point: that there is no pre-linguistic “given”, that thought and experience are mediated by and logically consequent upon language. Strip these statutory representatives of their language game and they become like putty in his hands. He used to spend his time running from these people, now he knows that, with the help of his Penalty Box, he can philosophise them away.
It is easy to mock governments, bureaucrats, and politicians for their crimes against language: the stock phrases, the empty gestures, but equally grave atrocities are committed in any large organization, including corporations which are supposedly disciplined by the need to earn a profit. I would love to see such a scheme introduced into all workplaces, except that we may be left dumbfounded, unable to speak without our favorite cliches to hand. "Globalization", "localization", "customer centric", "new paradigm", "cloud computing", "restructuring", "agility", "rigorous". Corporate language is anything but rigorous. I cannot remember the last time I heard "wisdom", "patience', "kindness", "humility", "moderation".

Perhaps large corporations are refuges for mediocre minds, but surely small firms are little furnaces of original thinking, since they have to be oh-so-responsive to the darwinian pressures of the marketplace? I don't know, but I suspect not, since the main requirement for survival is to be able to anticipate the needs of your customers, and the best way to do that is to be something like them. I don't think original thinking is necessary to operate any business, or indeed in academics or anywhere else in life. Note that I am not saying that original thinking cannot be observed in large organizations, or small ones, or in academia, or government, nor that the market doesn't discipline corporations more than governments, or start-ups more than large firms. All I am saying is that the market only requires you to be somewhat better than your competition is some way, as judged by your customers. It rewards you for being useful to someone, rather than original thinking, and that is not a bad thing.

We use language to communicate, but we communicate more than facts and opinions, we also signal loyalty, telegraph subservience, assert authority, warn of rebellion. Organizations are little societies above all, and societies are all about hierarchy. Again, I am not saying that organizations are only about sociology! However, the similarities between North Korea and your employer or customer are not entirely coincidental. Xavier Marquez had a fascinating blog post about cults of personality.
Here is where cults of personality come in handy. The dictator wants a credible signal of your support; merely staying silent and not saying anything negative won’t cut it. In order to be credible, the signal has to be costly: you have to be willing to say that the dictator is not merely ok, but a superhuman being, and you have to be willing to take some concrete actions showing your undying love for the leader. (You may have had this experience: you are served some food, and you must provide a credible signal that you like it so that the host will not be offended; merely saying that you like it will not cut it. So you will need to go for seconds and layer on the praise). Here the concrete action required of you is typically a willingness to denounce others when they fail to say the same thing, but it may also involve bizarre pilgrimages, ostentatious displays of the dictator’s image, etc.
Read the whole thing! Perhaps this is why we are presented with the sight of apparently intelligent people who seem to have replaced their brains with jargon generators: they (we?) are merely signalling their commitment to the supposed values of the organization, and the direction it is moving in. Fortunately, employees, unlike North Koreans, have the option to exit, which prevents organizations from collapsing completely into self-contained little worlds like North Korea. When companies are in crisis, the exigencies of survival take precedence over the need to signal loyalty, and a temporary period of plain speaking follows. Something like this happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed, and cheap imports were no longer available. Plain talking is more likely when senior management is replaced, and the new leaders can blame the old ones for all the woes of the unit, and take whatever steps are necessary to save it, and employees can demonstrate their new loyalties by denouncing the old dispensation and recommending changes. This obviously hasn't yet happened in Cuba, though Raoul has taken over from Fidel. Again, motives are more complex (and admirable!) than I am indicating here, and the benefits of this newfound freedom are real, whatever the motivation may be: a period of Hayekian discovery within the centrally planned Universe of the corporation.

Why do (should?) we care for plain language? I do think there is an aesthetic argument for good writing, though that need not always be clear writing. Imaginative literature relies on artful language for its effect, and this may require it to be obscure. For most other writing, however, where we claim to be describing how something is, it may be good manners to be clear, so your readers can more easily examine your argument. It may also be a sign that you have taken some trouble to think matters through, and to express yourself clearly, though some people seem to be congenitally incapable of expressing themselves clearly. Besides these, reading Orwell had convinced me that it is because it is difficult to lie in plain language, while jargon can be used to cloak many crimes.
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
However, this passage from Kevin Macleod as quoted by Brad DeLong, makes a good case that Orwell is simply wrong on this point.
There's no necessary connection between political truth and verbal clarity. Let's take some writers whose politics Orwell would reject. Nothing could be stronger than Orwell's detestation of Fabianism and Stalinism. George Bernard Shaw stood for the first and more or less endorsed the second, yet The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism is a delight to read. Not all the Communists and fellow-travellers were hacks. (Orwell's citation of a rant from that quarter is tellingly under-referenced: 'Communist pamphlet' - I ask you!) T. A. Jackson and A. L. Morton wrote their best-known books in clear and vivid English. John Strachey was at his most lucid when he was at his most wrong. Professor J. B. S. Haldane's science essays are still read for pleasure. The Trotskyist C. L. R. James wrote one literary masterpiece; Trotsky himself was constitutionally incapable of writing a dull page, and in Max Eastman he found a translator worthy of his style.
This now seems correct to me. "Truth" is about how well your model of reality fits the world, clarity is about how easily your readers can understand what you are saying. However, the world is complicated, and human society is the worst of it. For example, an economy is a whirlpool of feedback loops and circular flows, and we will always find it diffcult to trace the consequences of any policy or event. Think how hard it is to see how even simple programs work. To believe that we will be able to judge the truth of a theory if we are given a clear, elegant exposition, we need to assume that we already know the truth of the matter and can then compare it to the theory. This, however, is an empirical question. By definition, we can understand a clear writer more easily than an obscure one, but to judge whether the what he has writen is the truth is another matter altogether. At best, we will be able to more easily detect some of the more obvious logical errors he has made.


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