Bafflegab or bureaucratese?
Unclear writing is bad for democracy
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/03/2015 (2837 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Here is a typical blurb from a typically baffling government press release: “The Manitoba government recognizes the important role sustained investments in our schools plays in improving student engagement and achievement.”
Here’s the English translation: Spending money on schools makes kids smarter.
It’s beyond me why the government wouldn’t want to be crystal clear about the new gym it’s building at Lord Nelson School. Instead, that bit of nice news was buried in layer after layer of technocrat mumbo-jumbo, the kind that would be funny if it wasn’t so bad for democracy.
For years, my colleague Mia Rabson and I collected, scrawled on our office bulletin board, a list of words we wanted to ban. Our natural tendency as journalists to favour aggressive freedom of speech was trumped by our daily frustration with indecipherable government press releases and our sheer annoyance with the overuse of certain trendy words.
Our list of banned words included: impactful, utilize, stakeholders, partnership, going forward. After covering the national roundtable on missing and murdered aboriginal women last week, we’d likely add actioning, a word used so often it was comical. I’d also throw in change agent. What is that? It’s either the guy Russian President Vladimir Putin might use to assassinate an opposition leader or it’s the young woman who brings you a bigger size at Old Navy.
I’ve also railed against the overuse of the word robust, pioneered in Manitoba by Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh. Now, the hot word among politicians and policy wonks is piece, as in, “we need to engage further on the monitoring piece” or “stakeholders will have input on the regulatory piece.” I hear it daily and it makes me want to whomp someone over the head with my Oxford.
(Another one I hate: community. It’s a word CBC Radio loves, an imprecise catch-all that’s meant to sound inclusive but really means absolutely nothing. Can’t we just say town? Or First Nation? Or neighbourhood?)
Mostly, complaining about government jargon is fun. It’s easy to pick on the army of public relations staff who labour so long for so little effect over press releases and talking points. But the language governments use has power, the power to obfuscate and spin, to downplay or oversell.
It’s especially damaging when governments talk about the money they spend, which they rarely explicitly do for fear voters might be reminded spending money is the essential function of government. Here’s an incomplete primer on the jargon:
Increasing resources means spending money.
Investing in means spending money.
Commitment means money we’ve promised to spend.
Budget pressures means we have no money.
Enhancing means we already spent money on this thing but it kind of sucked so we’re fixing it with more money.
The relentless watering-down of language and our related unwillingness to shout “what the hell does that MEAN?” are among the biggest threats to government accountability. That kind of overblown, imprecise, confusing jargon is only meant to baffle citizens, to stop them from figuring out what their government is actually doing, or not doing.
Political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” wrote English novelist and critic George Orwell. How much worse it’s become since he penned those words nearly 70 years ago!
Governments commit unspeakable language sins, but they are not the worst, just the most prolific.
Recently, Free Press art critic Sarah Swan has taken to translating the impenetrable artist statements and text panels that accompany works of art. It’s, quite seriously, my favourite feature in the paper. This week, she dissected this: “Sim subverts the classical male nude, substituting the pretense of traditionalized ‘pose’ for a posture that employs a gentle subjugation, replacing canonical fine art media with a medium that is makeshift and extemporized.”
All that means, as Swan translated, is the artist made a quick sketch of a nude model, choosing to use a simple ballpoint pen. Even so, I would turn around and walk out of any gallery that put such exclusionary nonsense on its walls.
Academics are also awful. A couple of years ago, I spent time at the University of Toronto on a fellowship. It was a year burdened by words I never understood, no matter how many times I looked them up or asked some brilliant PhD kid to explain them to me — normative, teleological, pedagogy. Not long ago, I heard an academic use the word normative over and over again on the CBC, which ensured I impactfully switched to Energy 106 going forward.
That kind of language is just pure snobbery. And it makes it very easy for average people to not care when university budgets get cut. If the public can’t understand your research, we won’t care if you quit doing it.
The same holds true for government, but in reverse. If we citizens don’t demand clear, simple, precise language from our elected officials, then it’s our own fault if they continue to snow us with words designed to thwart our right to know.