Why politicians and academics don't just say what they mean

A forthcoming book by Harvard thinker Steven Pinker takes direct aim at the growing amount of bafflegab in academic and political discourse. Journalists might want to duck as well, Neil Macdonald writes.

Say what you mean: New Steven Pinker book takes aim at the rise in bafflegab

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to the media last week in Geneva about the Ukraine crisis. "I want to make this crystal clear." (Associated Press)

John Kerry, America's ever-more-pontifical secretary of state, recently began an answer about Middle East peace negotiations by declaring, as he often does: "I want to make this crystal clear."

He then went on to do the opposite, blathering on about "facilitation," building eventually to this howler: "The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate."

Listening, I marvelled. Why would such an accomplished, educated man gum up an answer so thoroughly?

Surely it would have been simpler to say the president wants to help.

I covered Kerry's presidential run in 2004, and while he's always liked pompous language, his rhetoric since becoming Obama's top diplomat has become positively constipated.

I've seen this before. Joe Clark, once he became Brian Mulroney's foreign affairs minister, starting talking about attending "international fora" (an archaic plural of forum) and being "seized with issues," rather than just considering something.

Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, assured delegates heading to the GOP convention after a hurricane in 2012 that "there is not any anticipation there will be a cancellation." A new documentary film's title, The Unknown Known, mocks former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tortured ruminations on the "known knowns and unknown knowns" of the Iraq War.

Anyone who's ever covered politics has had to endure braying about "a full and frank exchange of views," "at an appropriate point and time," and the seemingly unstoppable "going forward," often prefaced by a few sentences about how pleased the speaker is to say all this.

We are constantly being told what "the people" think or have collectively spoken, as though they were consulted, and, when a sin is exposed: "Mistakes were made. Are we perfect? No, we are not." (No direct mention, of course, of who made the mistakes, or the fact that no one ever suggested the presence of perfection.)

Perhaps such affectations come from being surrounded by hyper-ambitious Ivy League-educated advisers who talk that way.

Or perhaps, as the famously incomprehensible French philosopher Michel Foucault once admitted, high officials fear that if they start speaking simply, they won't be taken seriously by their audiences.

Of course, what they're really doing is a public disservice. The average listener just tunes out.

But it isn't just politicians who use a dozen words when one would do. The disease of opaque, deliberately obscure writing and speaking has infected bureaucracies, journalism, and academia. In the latter, it's a pandemic.

My daughter, a senior at McGill, was recently puzzling over a criticism by Wahneema Lubiano, a professor at Duke University, of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing.

Lee's use of "vernacularity cannot guarantee counter-hegemonic cultural resistance," chided Lubiano. "One can be caught up in Euro-American hegemony within the vernacular, and one can repeat the masculinism and heterosexism of vernacular culture. Vernacular language and cultural productions allow the possibility of discursive power disruptions, of cultural resistance — they do not guarantee it."

A 'sense of style'

Well, alrighty, then.

"Most academics … effortlessly dispense sludge," writes Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist and writer.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker author of "The Stuff of Thought," "The Better Angels of our Nature," "How the Mind Works" and "The Language Instinct," among others, is taking on the subject of clear writing next. (Rebecca Goldstein / Viking / Associated Press)

A Canadian, Pinker is considered one of the world's leading thinkers about language, and his forthcoming book, The Sense of Style, is a plea for clarity.

He argues that while many scholars do groundbreaking work, and have important ideas, "their writing stinks."

"There's just a lot of bad writing out there," he told me, and that has its consequences: "We pay for universities, we ought to be able to understand what comes out of them."

Pinker's book — he provided me with an advance peek when I called to talk to him about the subject — is neither a style guide, nor another rant about the need for fewer dangling participles and split infinitives.

In fact, he regards many English grammar rules as classist anachronisms originally designed in 18th-century Britain.

Instead, his is an argument for simplicity: "assumption of equality between writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius," he writes. "Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce."

John Kerry, and every lawyer, academic, journalist and author might want to buy a copy once the book comes out in September.

Wads of fluff

Pinker has no patience with those who haughtily claim that complex, obscure language is useful and even necessary when speaking to a specialized audience — like, say, other diplomats or students.

A minority of academics, he says, do manage to write with grace and verve.

Pinker points to the physicist Brian Greene, who once explained the hideously complex theory of multiple universes using entertaining analogies, never resorting to the impenetrable jargon of his discipline.

("We find ourselves in this universe and not another," Greene said, "for much the same reason we find ourselves on Earth and not Neptune" — because it alone supports us. "Just as it takes a well-stocked shoe store to guarantee you'll find your size, only a well-stocked multiverse can guarantee our universe, with its peculiar amount of dark energy, will be represented.")

If a theoretical physicist can do that, there's no excuse for others not to at least try.

Reading Pinker, a reporter should wince. I did.

In this book, he shines a pitiless light on our love of words like "framework," "process," and "model." (I could easily add another 20 or 30).

These, he says, are meta-concepts, or "concepts about concepts." He compares them to the layers of packaging material a customer has to hack through to get at the product.

And of course there's our over-hedging — the use of qualifiers like "apparently," "evidently," "rather," "comparatively" and "presumably."

Editors call that journalistic caution. Pinker calls it "wads of fluff that imply [writers] are not willing to stand behind what they are saying."

What really hurts, though, is his diagnosis of such writing: "In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

Ironically, he says, "it's often the brightest and best-informed who suffer the most from it."

Janice Stein, the head of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, applauds Pinker. Turgid prose like the film criticism my daughter was trying to figure out, she says, is just "a cruel assault on the language."

Stein says Pinker's book is part of what she calls a brewing revolt against obscurantist language in academia, which she contends is actually on the rise.

She asks her students to write in language their families could understand.

As they should. As should we all.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.