Man is a symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal.
- Kenneth Burke, "Definition of Man"
In a piece in The Telegraph a few months ago, John Preston made the compelling case that we're losing the war against jargon. And although he doesn't frame it this way, jargon—the idiosyncratic language of the specialized chattering classes—commits sins against language.
In failing to "be short, be simple, and be human," the jargon issuing from government bureaucracies particularly "enables people to do nasty things to one another without having their consciences tweaked." Of course, this is nothing new. In "The Abolition of Man," C.S. Lewis gets at this when he writes:
Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are 'potential officer material.' Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligence, are sales-resistance."
Just read Ontario's Ministry of Education document on "Inclusive Curriculum" and you'll find a good example of an opaque language, couching a value-laden agenda in seemingly neutral descriptors. Teachers are now expected to help students "unlearn heteronormative expectations”—not, mind you, in the name of creating new normative expectations, nor in the name of inculcating any type of virtue, but only in the name of being "inclusive." And who wouldn't want to be inclusive?
Such language works if you don't ask who's being excluded with such pedagogy or what type of "normative expectations" are being built to replace the existing ones, and for what reason. Even a measured, thoughtful response to this is now simply branded with another 21st century lexical marvel: "homophobia." You thought you had an opinion? You're just afraid of what you don't you understand.
We have a remarkable ability to make and use words. Using complicated systems of symbols, we communicate our subjective experiences of the objective world within our shared communities. And this dynamic interplay between the self, the world, and the community is essential to any good use of language.
In his essay "Standing by Words," Wendell Berry gets at this interplay when he lays out three important rules for good communication:
- It must designate its object precisely.
- The speaker must stand by it; be accountable for it; be willing to act upon it.
- The relation of speaker, word, and object must be conventional; the community must know what it is.
The community is neglected when language swings too far in either subjective or objective directions.
That is, it can become so subjective that no one outside a small group (or, worse, one individual) understands it. On the other hand, language can also seek to become so objective it detaches itself from any real human usage. And there are two big problems with attempting such a purely objective language. First, it usually desires only to describe rather than to evaluate. Since this is impossible it leads to the second problem: it fails to realize that within its assumedly neutral descriptions are embedded evaluations.
Preston and Lewis, I think, help us add a fourth dimension to good communication that we might add to Berry's list:
- It seeks to be honest and transparent about the system of values that it believes transcends speaker, audience, and community.
Look at the language around "progressivism," "a woman's right to choose," "racialized minorities," or, my favorite, "checking your privilege," and you'll find that many of our modern buzzwords obfuscate much more than they communicate. But this is serious business, because language, like all our cultural artifacts, is not something we simply make, but also something that makes us. Our words have the power to shape the very minds which gave them birth. And anything that can shape us, can also misshape; anything that can use us, can also misuse and abuse us.