Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

We’re choking language with spikes and surges

Posted by metaphorical on 23 January 2007

Robert Fisk had a nice rant last week about Orwellian euphemisms (though George himself wasn’t cited).

This jargon disease is choking language.

Only this week I received another request, this time to join “ethics practitioners” to “share evidence-based practices on dealing with current ethical practices” around the world. What on earth does this mean? Why do people write like this?

There is something repulsive about this vocabulary, an aggressive language of superiority in which “key players” can “interact” with each other, can “impact” society, “outsource” their business – or “downsize” the number of their employees. They need “feedback” and “input”. They think “outside the box” or “push the envelope”. They have a “work space”, not a desk. They need “personal space” – they need to be left alone – and sometimes they need “time and space”, a commodity much in demand when marriages are failing.

These lies and obfuscations are infuriating. “Downsizing” employees means firing them; “outsourcing” means hiring someone else to do your dirty work. “Feedback” means “reaction”, “input” means “advice”. Thinking “outside the box” means, does it not, to be “imaginative”?

It is a disease, this language, caught by one of our own New Labour ministers on the BBC last week when he talked about “environmental externalities”. Presumably, this meant “the weather”. Similarly, an architect I know warned his client of the effect of the “aggressive saline environment” on a house built near the sea. If this advice seems obscure, we might be “conflicted” about it – who, I ask myself, invented the false reflexive verb?

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about “environmental externalities,” however. In the language of economists, politicians, and U.N. bureaucrats, an externality is a cost that is borne by someone other than the actor whose behavior generates it. We are allowed to sue the maker of a defective car so that the hospital bills aren’t externalized by the car’s manufacturer.

Consider all that packaging that we have to tear apart and throw out whenever we buy so much as a dozen galvanized nails. The companies that shrould nails in cardboard and plastic don’t have to pay for the landfill it fills all too quickly. That’s an example of an environmental externality.

And if the highly educated Robert Fisk can be confused by this euphemism, that’s all the proof we need that, as Orwell wrote, “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”


4 Responses to “We’re choking language with spikes and surges”

  1. Very insightful…and scary. There’s a certain arrogance to this doublespeak as well.

    “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

    -An excellent quote.

  2. “The highly educated Robert Fisk?” The man for whom the verb “fisk” was coined? Tell me it was dripping with sarcasm. Please. Seriously.

  3. JoAnne said

    “Evidence-based” is a specific term, too, isn’t it? I think it has to do with, well, being evidence-based, based on observations of variables that affect outcomes. Evidence-based medicine is medicine that uses the results of studies, rather than your “gut feeling” about whether a particular treatment is likely to work.

    So evidence-based ethics practices would be ones that had been tested and the results measured.

    Is there such a body of knowledge?

  4. Ethics was never my main area, and I’ve been out of philosophy for 25 years, but I would guess that “evidence-based bioethics” would use science (presumably the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology) to learn what the normal ethical practices of a culture are. Then you would recommend the practice common to the relevant culture. So, it might turn out that for Koreans, you tell the person’s children their parent has cancer (I’m just making that up) but for Americans you don’t. Or for a Buddhist community, you don’t allow a certain animal study to take place.

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