The tool we use to think, write and talk about society – language – is contested.
In Death Sentence, his polemic against corporate and bureaucratic language, former political speechwriter Don Watson lamented the decay of political and corporate language into impenetrable sludge. “All kinds of institutions cannot pass on the simplest information without also telling us that they are contemporary, innovative and forward-looking”, he wrote.
It’s not just about bad writing or stupid marketing buzz words – irritating as these are. The same sterile language euphemises war, famine, brutality and exploitation. Journalists, politicians and others seek to desensitise us to the horrific, to cover the destruction of human lives with a few carefully chosen stock phrases.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are dubbed UMAs – “unauthorised maritime arrivals”. Those whose claims are denied become “unlawful non-citizens” – like Josefa Rauluni, a Fijian man who, in despair after being told he would be deported, jumped to his death from a first-floor balcony in Villawood detention centre in December 2010.
According to the Department of Immigration, Mr Rauluni was detained “during a routine compliance operation” because he had “failed to make departure arrangements” from Australia.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) describes itself as “fostering global monetary cooperation”, “helping countries restore macroeconomic stability”, and other nonsense phrases. This is the organisation that, along with the World Bank, ran the “structural adjustment programs” that sent developing countries into chasms of debt and their populations into brutal poverty.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible”, wrote George Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. “Villages are bombarded from the air … this is called pacification.”
Journalists loyal to – or at least uncritical of – US forces during the Iraq war twisted language in the same sickening way. Selling a war is a public relations exercise, requiring as much sophistry and deception as the sleaziest corporate cover-up.
Watson critiqued modern war reporting. In using words like “attrited” and “deconflicted” to describe the murder of civilians, embedded journalists “join the military in denying the common humanity of ordinary soldiers”, he wrote.
The Commission of Audit report, released in May, encouraged Abbott in his quest to destroy Medicare as a universal healthcare system. The commissioners warned of the dire threat of people exploiting the system by spending 10 hours waiting in a hospital emergency room to scam free treatment for the sniffles. To stop this rort-waiting-to-happen, the report recommended charging a still larger amount of money to be seen in a hospital. Whoops – I mean, it recommended “providing price signals that direct patients to access the most cost effective treatment setting”.
Even bureaucrats whose main job isn’t war, economic extortion or impoverishing the sick use ridiculous jargon to conceal their aims.
In the University of Melbourne’s 40-page Growing Esteem discussion paper, the words “strategic” or “strategy” appear 75 times. The reader is invited to consider the university’s strategic choices, strategic initiatives, strategic agenda, strategic plan, strategic challenges, strategic dilemmas, and on and on it tediously goes.
Variations on “engage” and “engagement” appear 98 times. There’s corporate engagement, professional engagement, public engagement, community engagement … The university, writes vice-chancellor Glyn Davis, has even “given voice to engagement”.
Why use corporate newspeak in a discussion paper for a university? Because administrators want to run their institutions as profitable corporations. Students are the raw materials; staff, the machinery. To say so outright would be rather gauche, so instead we get 40 pages of strategically enhanced bullshit.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, wrote Orwell. Bureaucrats, politicians and senior managers want to obscure reality and confuse us.
Nobody who honestly wants to be understood produces this brand of linguistic garbage.
This is why you’d never have caught Karl Marx writing, “Value-adding human resources of the global community, form strategic partnerships; you have nothing of which to be divested but your counter-emancipatory devices!”
While the language of oppression numbs the brain, the language of struggle has the power to wake us up. We need more, honest, straight talk that brings to light the “us” and the “them” of the real world. That’s not enough to break the power of the bosses – only the workers’ movement can do that. But it’s a damn good start.