I'll make you an offer you can't understand

I'll make you an offer you can't understand
How to use language to communicate not to dissemble

Some wit once noted that nine out of every seven people get bamboozled by the way in which language and statistics are manipulated by politicians, economists, academics and financiers.

It worries me when language gets in the way of understanding – its prime purpose is to communicate.

To illustrate the point, the following excerpt comes from the annual report of a Fortune 500 company:

"Your management is fully incented to identify value-added enhancements as we build momentum by selectively outsourcing shareholder value in the interest of maximising incentive compensation. As in every year in our company’s history, once again this year we have eliminated waste and increased market-leading growth potential by streamlining our world-class quality and innovation, using a wide value mix to make major strides in integrating operating strategies to realise all of the margin benefits available."

Do you get it?

It sounds to me as if the company has just fired a whole lot of people and sub-contracted some of its activities in order to achieve short term bottom-line gains, justify fat executive bonuses and hold up the share price.  If that’s what the report meant, why didn’t it just say so? 

If you recognise the text and have shares in this company, sell them. Now!

Not just because they have used language in order to dissemble, but because they’re mean-spirited bastards masquerading as hard-headed businessmen. It’s sophistry delivered through prolixity.

I’m fond of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Pray tell me this day, on one side of a sheet of paper, the current state of the British navy.”

Have you ever noticed that really competent people can explain things simply? Einstein managed to summarise the origin of the entire universe in five characters; E=mc2. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was 268 words, little more than a long paragraph. By contrast Auckland City Council regulations controlling food stalls at markets and fundraising fairs runs to 12 pages.

There is real truth in the aphorism that you don’t understand anything unless you can explain it to someone else.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, our theme is the debasement and devaluation of language through its misuse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not simply espousing the purist’s calls for better pronunciation and more rigidity in the teaching of spelling and grammar, although I personally lament their demise in this age of txt and email. I’m rather making a plea for less verbosity, less political correctness and more clarity in the written and spoken word.

We are becoming a society of confused hand-wringers, paralysed into inaction because we don’t know what to think or do, debating everything at length with words we can hardly spell.

Reassuringly, we are not alone. There is a country more anally retentive than us – Canada. Reporting in the National Post some years ago, a puzzled Paula Simons noted that the University of Alberta offered a course in Canadian literary history, described in part as follows:

“We will interrogate the production of ‘society’ out of a non-totalised set of archival fragments or ‘ruins’, and we will ask how the writing of history sets hegemonic discourses into opposition with counter-discourses.”

Simons asked:

“Why do so many academics write such gobbledegook?  In part, it’s snobbery, by writing in a complex language only specialists can understand they exclude the rest of us. Some of it is mental laziness. These writers haven’t worked their own ideas through, but by dressing up weak arguments in bombast and scholarly jargon, they hide the fact that they don’t know what they mean, either.” 

But I digress.

Fight fire with fire I say! If for some reason you feel the need to resist the encroachment of pseudo-intellectual claptrap, may I interest you in the Dada Engine.

The Dada Engine is a computer system for generating random text from a set of predetermined grammatical rules. In the form of a postmodernism generator, it utilises very long words to write grammatically correct but totally nonsensical gibberish that would warm the heart of any academic. 

Try this one for size, off the postmodernism generator:

“If one examines cultural postcapitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject cultural postcapitalist theory or conclude that sexual identity, somewhat paradoxically, has significance. But the subject is interpolated into a cultural postcapitalist theory that includes consciousness as a whole. It could be said that Mensonge promotes the use of feminism to challenge and read class. Lacan uses the term ‘cultural postcapitalist theory’ to denote the stasis, and subsequent economy, of dialectic reality.”

A real doozy isn’t it?  It means absolutely nothing at all. 

It really gets up the hair-lined passages leading to the respiratory tract through the cartilaginous prominence on my face.