Monday, 22 September 2008

And what do you mean by that?

I like words because they allow communication and the dissemination of knowledge. Like many beneficial things, they can be put to sinister use and I do not just mean as a method of incitement or to form a malicious plot. One of the most sinister uses of words is by obfuscation through jargon and unnecessary complexity or obscurity of language. There you have an example, I said obfuscation. My regular reader might well know what it means but many a man on the Clapham omnibus will not and will assume I mean something really complicated because I have used a long word. In fact I could have omitted it entirely and just said "one of the most sinister uses of words is through jargon and unnecessary complexity or obscurity of language". By adding the clever big word I was able to make my meaning less clear to anyone not familiar with the word itself.

Obscuring what one means can be a sensible thing in the right context. Faced with a nervous patient a doctor might wish to buy time before breaking bad news, gently softening the patient up until he can be told it is necessary to chop his legs off without the reaction being whooping hysteria. A judge might say to a lawyer "I fully understand why that point is of such importance to your client, now what do you say about this ..." He really means "what you have just said is nonsense, let's get to the heart of the matter". This is done not to spare the lawyer's delicate feelings but those of his client who hears every word and takes solace from the judge's apparent empathy without realising he is consigning the client's most cherished argument to the rubbish bin. Examples can be given from many field of true meaning being obscured in order to prevent upset or insult, it is a useful tool to maintain friendly relations pending the time the brutal truth is exposed.

All too often, however, jargon or evasion is used for no apparent reason. We have just had a magnificent example in the US Treasury Secretary telling us he is taking steps to address the problem of banks having "illiquid assets". What he means is banks have vast amounts of bad debt on their books because they lent money when they should not have done and he is going to cover their losses. There is no benefit in calling bad debts "illiquid assets" it is just an unnecessary use of jargon to try to pretend things are not as bad as they are, but the cat is already out of the bag and trying to stuff it back in with jargon does nobody any good it just makes him look shifty and manipulative.

Getting the balance right between plain speaking and techno-babble seems beyond the ability of almost all politicians. Every week there seem to be examples of a high-ranking member of one party or another using an obscure term when simplicity would be better, or dressing something up in jargon when the unvarnished truth would advance his case, or being too blunt when a blow really should be cushioned, or using a meaningless catchphrase which traps him for years ahead.

Take the old cabinet minister Nick Brown, some will remember him as a member of Tony Blair's first cabinet. He was not a very good performer in front of the cameras and put the final nail in his time at the top table when asked whether he would take a particular step to solve a problem. His answer was "it is outwith my powers", a phrase he repeated several times. I sat watching my television and asking why he used that phrase, years later I still do not know. Bad use of language made him appear a pompous fool; exit one ministerial career stage left.

Speaking in clear and simple terms so that people can readily understand what you mean should always be the default position. After all, if you are asking people to trust you to govern the country the very least they can expect is that you will tell them what you plan to do using words they can identify. The fewer times you obfuscate the more you are likely to be trusted and the more you spout meaningless jargon the less you appear to know what you are talking about. Will they learn? I doubt it, but it would be nice to see them try.

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