Contra Ed Smith, Plain and Clear Language is Still a Virtue

In the New Statesman Ed Smith pushes back at Orwell‘s classic ‘Politics and the English Language‘:

When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction ‘Let’s be clear’, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored….There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion. (‘Don’t be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue‘, New Statesman, 9 February 2013).

Smith is right (in a way), but his invocation of Orwell is misleading; the point that Smith wants to make can be made without suggesting that Orwell’s thesis is up for contestation. The politician or corporate shill is not ‘speaking with misleading simplicity’; rather, he is not being simple at all. There is nothing ‘misleading’ about his ‘simplicity’ for there is none to speak of. Mere conciseness or brevity does not equal simplicity, for otherwise a straightforward reductio of Orwell’s thesis would present itself: speak and communicate as little as possible. When Orwell spoke of writing simply, he had in mind a very particular kind of economy and clarity: use the most felicitous combination of words that express your meanings, no more, no less; there is a Aristotelian golden mean to be determined here, one that a good writer aims for constantly. Sometimes he overshoots and bores his readers with loquaciousness; sometimes he undershoots and leaves his readers mystified.  And it is not just the numerical measure of his writing–in words or length of description–that Orwell had in mind, but the particular choice of words. The bullet-pointed list can be extremely vague too.

The dabbler in lists and bullet points is engaging, not in simplicity or conciseness, but in obfuscation; he is peddling in the modern version of the jargon that Orwell deplored. The management consultant that puts up Powerpoint slides full of concentric circles, arrowheads, and other members of the geometric menagerie is not relying on the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ compaction thesis; rather, he is relying on distraction: look at these fancy, beguiling figures, while I indulge in some artful bullshit peddling. The bullet pointed-list and the consultancy chart shorten descriptions, but they leave out a great deal, giving us not just a skeleton but a misleading one.

If Orwell were to be brought to a corporate boardroom and subjected to the execrable management consultant presentation, he would rewrite his essay to include this modern abomination as an example of the bad ‘writing’ he had in mind.

Note: Yet again, a H/T to Corey Robin (and Doug Henwood) for pointing me to Ed Smith’s article.

3 thoughts on “Contra Ed Smith, Plain and Clear Language is Still a Virtue

  1. Have you ever watched lawyers in a courtroom?
    It’s their job to represent their clients and win, by elision and obfuscation if necessary. And it’s their job to call out their opponents for using the the same tricks.
    Moralists are authoritarians at heart. And schoolmasters are authoritarians by definition.

      1. Nobody likes lawyers until he needs one. Collaborative reason unchecked leads to collective delusion and an intellectual regime of various forms of regulatory capture. The long term now finally decreasing invisibility of the Palestinians is a perfect example. They had no advocates westerners would listen too, so “reason” rendered them irrelevant, adding insult to injury.

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