The power of language
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
A primary link between language and politics is the purported use of language to delude, misguide, and generally manipulate \"the masses.\" (...)
The article examines the fact that the push for democracy and the end of Communist rule in Central Europe was phrased in terms of traditional European notions of freedom and democracy, in spite of long-lived Communist attempts to redefine these and related terms in order to make them a Communist reality.(...)
A well-known joke in Poland better captures all these scholastic efforts: \"Do you know what\'s the difference between `democracy\' and `socialistic democracy\'? It\'s very plain. It\'s like the difference between `chair\' and `electric chair\'.\"
| ...and the language of power || Jan 18, 2003 |
How the lexicon of power downsizes the language
By LEON GETTLER
(...) Nearly 60 years ago, in his essay Politics and the English Language,
George Orwell said the aim was to mislead. \"When there is a gap between
one\'s real and one\'s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to
long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink\".
But if thought corrupted language, he said, language could also corrupt
thought. \"Every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one\'s brain.\"
William Lutz, an English professor at Rutgers University in the United
States, says the trend is getting worse.
The author (or is that \"content provider\") of 15 books on language and
writing and the former editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak,
Professor Lutz also teaches plain language to US corporates, including Ernst
& Young, Charles Schwab & Co, Wells Fargo and Whirlpool. He has also
prepared a plain-language handbook for the Securities Exchange Commission.
\"What it (management jargon) encourages is not only sloppy management
practices; it encourages you to do any damn thing you want because there is
no relationship between your actions and any defined specific vocabulary,\"
Professor Lutz said.
\"You can say you\'re meeting customer expectations because nobody knows what
it means. If you ask five people in the world of business who use the term
\"human capital\" to define it, I suspect you\'d get six different
Sloppy jargon is why a discipline as powerful as management theory is now
regarded as a joke, he says.
It is why management thinkers like Peter Drucker say people always use the
word \"guru\" because they can\'t fit the word \"charlatan\" into a headline. Or
as Henry Mintzberg puts it: \"When does management end and thinking begin?\"
It also explains why discussions on management theory with ordinary people
usually end up the same way. After a few minutes, someone dismisses it with
some choice words that don\'t require an MBA.
But even if they\'re right, the stuff is still important, because it is the
language of power and that makes it seductive.
In an age in which global capital flows run into the trillions of dollars,
when many of the largest economies in the world are not countries but
corporations, management terms such as delayering, destaffing,
re-engineering, downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing and insourcing have
changed the lives of people around the world, often dramatically.
It is like the cartoon in the New Yorker magazine showing a man sitting in a
doctor\'s office with knives sticking out of his back. \"Good news,\" says the
doctor. \"The tests show it\'s just a metaphor.\"
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| A relevant essay || Jan 18, 2003 |
Jacek, I\'m sure you\'re familiar with this essay by George Orwell but thought I\'d provide a relevant excerpt and link to the whole essay for anyone who\'s interested in reading one of the classic essays on the subject you brought up.
Politics and the English Language
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, \"I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.\" Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one\'s real and one\'s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as \"keeping out of politics.\" All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one\'s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning\'s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he \"felt impelled\" to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: \"[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany\'s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.\" You see, he \"feels impelled\" to write -- feels, presumably, that he has something new to say -- and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one\'s mind by ready-made phrases ( lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation ) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one\'s brain.
...but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. 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. Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one\'s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles\' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.
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| Thank you Kim || Jan 18, 2003 |
...for quoting this meaningful passage!
(The way I provided the link after my first para. was indeed not very clear.)
| Verbal diarrhea? || Jan 18, 2003 |
Now you\'ve got me going, Jacek. Here\'s something from a fine book on writing.
From Less Than Words Can Say, Richard Mitchell
Spirits from the Vasty Deep
Bad writing is like any other form of crime; most of it is unimaginative and tiresomely predictable. The professor of education seeking a grant and the neighborhood lout looking for a score simply go and do as their predecessors have done. The one litanizes about carefully unspecified developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, and the other sticks up the candy store. The analogy is not perfect, of course, for the average lout seldom nets more than thirty-five dollars per stickup, and he even runs some little risk of getting caught. Nevertheless, the writing and the stickup are equally routine and boring. It’s not often that we find ourselves admiring these criminals, therefore. Once in a while, however, some unusually creative caper pleases us with its novelty or its audacity. So, too, with the works of the grant-seekers, perhaps because creative force is so much less common in grant-seekers than in other culprits.
We turn now to just such an enterprise. If it were only a little bit less illiterate, it would seem to have been written by someone who had read deeply in Luther and even Nietsche and had decided to sin boldly and to hell with Sklavenmoral. We find here none of that meager, mealymouthed obsequiousness that piously assures us that teaching and learning have now been shown – really – to have something to do with one another. That’s the tepid prayer of a half-baked scholastic. What follows is the work of a veritable academic dervish:
Project WEY – Washington Environmental Yard (1972) is a manifestation of the intercommunal, process-oriented, interage, interdisciplinary type of change vehicle toward an environmental ethic from the school-village level to a pan-perspective. The urban focus of the project as the medium has been inestimably vital since it is generally speaking the message. Situated near the central downtown area of the city of Berkeley and a mere block from civic center, Washington Elementary School courts the thousands of daily onlookers/passersby (20,000 autos!) traveling on a busy boulevard with easy access to the physical transformation and social interactions (at a distance to close-up) – virtual open space laboratory. It has served evocatively as a catalyst for values confrontation, even through a soft mode of visual/physical data exchange system. Since 1971, the dramatic changes have represented a process tool for the development of environmental/educational value encounters on-site/off-site, indoors/outdoors and numerous other bipolar entities and dyads. The clients represent a mirror of the macro-world just as the children and parents of the school reflect more than thirty different ethnic groups – as one of numerous dimensions of diversity.
It is difficult to comment on this writing, and dangerous as well, since too much attention to this sort of thing may well overthrow the mind. The earlier passage is at least decipherable, but this is a form of contemporary glossolalia and not to be grasped by the reason alone. It requires the gift of faith as well.
We do see, at least, what it’s all about. It’s about a change vehicle, of course, a change vehicle toward an ethic. We know also that the focus has been vital, inestimably vital, in fact, so we need not expect that there will be any attempt to estimate the degree of the focus’s vitality. That’s good. We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can reasonably guess, since the school courts all those onlookers/passersby in their 20,000 autos when they ought to be paying attention to their driving, that the busy boulevard is probably strewn with tangled wreckage and the dead and bleeding bodies of motorists. The carnage, apparently, serves as a virtual open-space laboratory of social interactions resulting in physical transformations. What could be clearer?
We know that some of “it” or other – the school? the project? – has itself served, and evocatively at that, as a catalyst for values confrontation, “even” through a soft mode, which makes it clear that it is unusual for something to serve evocatively as a catalyst through a soft mode, but that this something has nevertheless managed to do so and thus deserves generous funding. We see that changes have somehow represented a tool, a tool for the development of all sorts of doubled-up things, including certain unspecified but surely numerous and important “bipolar entities and dyads.” (Here we must be careful not to commit some sacrilege; bipolar entities might be some kind of powerful spirits, and those dyads might be something like those dynamite chicks that lurk in trees.) And, just as changes have represented a tool, the clients have represented a mirror. There. That gives us a process-oriented pan-perspective.
[Edited at 2004-12-06 23:46]
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| Orwell predicted it all 56 years ago || Jan 18, 2003 |
\"Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern  English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.\"
| Beauty and the Beast || Jan 19, 2003 |
Wonderful example, Jacek
| 60 years later || Jan 20, 2003 |
You would be surprised to find out how many universities offer programs in \"political lingustics\" and how many conferences are held on this topic. They teach how to think critically, i.e. how NOT to be biased. Since politics is part of their curriculum, should it not be politically correct to accept it in our everyday lives?