Politics and the English Language II

Far be it from me to aspire to the heights of Orwell on this subject. But it seems to me that there are things he missed, perhaps because he had too much faith in the intelligence of the average reader, or because that intelligence has gone downhill considerably since Orwell’s time. Today, it seems to me, we need to look, not at how writers deliberately deceive readers, but at how readers accidentally but inexorably deceive themselves in the process of reading. One of the basic axioms of communication, although it gets little attention from the “experts” today, is that if anything can possibly be misunderstood, it will be. In fact, there are reliably predictable ways in which that misunderstanding can be expected to happen. Textual scholars as early as the fifth century C.E. discovered some of them in dealing with different manuscript versions of the same text, because obviously the copyist of one or the other manuscript had copied wrong where they differed. A whole set of rules emerged on how to choose the variant most likely to have been the original–for instance, always choose the most difficult version of the text, since an erring copyist is most likely to have miswritten by simplifying the original.

A similar process has been proved to be at work in the development of rumor–Gordon Allport has written a short classic work on the subject. As a story circulates, it will become simplified; the inconsistent elements and apparent digressions will disappear; gaps in chronology will be filled; and in general, the story will develop a plot of its own, dominated by the elements the various tellers consider most important.

At the other end of the spectrum is the drafting and reading of legal documents. Lawyers construct documents with the assumption that every word counts, both by itself and in relation to the document as a whole. And they read other people’s documents with the same assumption, on the lookout for a word unwisely inserted or omitted, resulting in a meaning more favorable to one’s own client that to the drafter. Which accounts for a great deal of the apparent repetition in legal documents (“give, devise, and bequeath,” “on or about May 15, 1974,” “lease, sell, let, convey,” and so on)–it is an effort to make sure nothing useful to one’s client is omitted.

Unfortunately, the discipline of reading a document with careful attention to the meaning of each word, its relation to its context in the document, the import of the document as a whole, and the document’s relationship to its social/political/ historical/economic/etc. context, is normally reserved, among non-lawyers, for the Bible or the Constitution. Those of us engaged in writing less weighty material have to anticipate that it will be read the way most people read most things–once-over- lightly, with ample opportunity for the same distortions that account for miscopying of texts and the development of rumor.

To begin with, what most people read is almost never precisely what was written, once we get beyond the basic simple sentence of ten words or less. Most people not only do not absorb everything they see on paper, they actually add to their understanding of the material things that were never in the original. And, worse still, the average reader is most likely to distort his/her reading when it involves the things most important to her/him.

Which brings us to the drafting of political documents, which are intended to be instruments of persuasion. The whole point of a well-written political document is to speak to the reader about something the reader considers important–and is therefore most likely to misconstrue. The better the writer succeeds in addressing the reader’s deepest concerns, the more likely the document is to be misread.

Specifically, the first words to go, ‘twixt writer and reader, are the qualifiers–“most”, “many”, “some”, “occasionally”, “frequently”, “rarely”, and so on. You see qualifiers all over the place in advertisements, because the advertisers’ lawyers put them in so as to avoid charges of false advertising from the FTC’s lawyers. But the only reason anybody else uses qualifiers is to avoid flak for over-generalizing or sounding dogmatic. For that purpose, the use of qualifiers almost never works–usually, the reader ignores them entirely, and is likely to consider the writer dogmatic and over-generalizing anyway. At best, the more sophisticated reader may conclude that the writer is dogmatic and over-generalizing, but has competent legal counsel.

Next to go is the Ritual Disclaimer/Concession to the Other Side’s Arguments. The purpose of inserting it is to sound reasonable, and to avoid sounding dogmatic. The actual result is, in most cases, that the RD/COSA is either ignored and the writer’s position taken as unreasonable and dogmatic anyway, or, worse still, it isn’t ignored, and the reader concludes the writer either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or lacks the courage of his convictions. Sometimes the reader even ignores the RD/COSA on the conscious level and concludes the writer is unreasonable and dogmatic, while nonetheless retaining the subconscious suspicion that the writer also doesn’t know what he is talking about and/or lacks the courage of his convictions. The only exceptions to this predicament that I have seen are the rare instances in which a writer actually does a brilliant job of stating the opponent’s best case, and then demolishes it. That takes rhetorical genius rarely seen in today’s political arena.

At the other end of the political writer-reader gap is another set of problems. The first occurs when the writer(s) water down an originally unified and clear position in order to sound reasonable and avoid alienating possible supporters. In practice, the less likely supporters will probably ignore the modifying statements, and construe the document in pretty much the way the writer(s) originally intended, if not stronger. The more solid supporters of the original position may resent its dilution.

The second problem occurs when the original document is the fruit of hours of painful negotiation among different factions, some of whom are not willing to sign a statement unless it says “some As are Bs,” while others cannot associate themselves with it unless it says “most Bs are not As,” and still others will denounce it and its authors in the public press unless it says “many Bs are Cs,” and so on. Here again, the readers are likely to interpret the statement in the most extreme possible way. Indeed, the readers with different positions on the issue in question may well read the statement in contradictory ways. Most likely, each will read it in the way s/he finds least acceptable, so that a compromise statement may succeed only in alienating several opposing factions at once.

The third and most difficult situation occurs when the writer’s original position is inherently complex and ambiguous, and cannot be stated simply without losing its meaning. In which case, the meaning is doomed, at least until the next generation’s textual scholars get hold of the statement, if they ever do.

Additional handicaps can be imposed upon the already-irksome writer-reader relationship, for instance if the intended reader is in some way handicapped beyond the range of “normal” distortion in comprehending what s/he reads–e.g., by being only marginally literate (an increasingly prevalent problem among even the most intelligent younger readers) or by not being fluent in the writer’s language.

I’m not suggesting that careful word-for-word drafting of political statements is a total waste of time. But those who engage in it should at least know what it is useful for. It can be very useful as a way of clarifying one’s own thinking. Where compromise among differing factions is involved, the process can be useful in clarifying and sometimes even reconciling their differences. Where the making of a statement is itself an act of political commitment, doing it on the basis of a lowest common denominator, so as to involve the largest possible numbers of people without diluting their fundamental beliefs, is an excellent organizing tool.

But all of these are benefits for the writers, and do not involve the writer-reader relationship at all (except insofar as the process of gathering signatures and endorsements may transform readers into honorary writers.) What we cannot expect of a political statement written on the merely cognitive level, is to transform a public readership into a constituency.

I’m not saying that that transformation is impossible. But it has to be done with language deliberately calculated to invite emotional reaction rather than analysis. Analysis rarely changes anybody’s mind about anything; at best it serves to rationalize a choice the emotions have already made. Obviously, some very corrupt and dangerous politicians have used this fact to perpetrate atrocities through the ages. But I think it’s possible to use emotional appeal honestly, in the service of a cause that can be justified by an honest analysis. That, gentle reader, must await the writing of a whole other essay.


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