Imprecision in language sabotages political writing

The English language, George Orwell noted, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Here are two specimens of ugly and inaccurate language that recently appeared on this page:

Loren Krywanczyk — “It is the obligation of those of us with the ability to do so to inform our activism with critical examination and to infuse our debate with a sober sense of material realities beyond us but not unaffected by us” (“An activist’s work is frustrating but crucial,” 2/28).

Peter Johnston — “The question [of whether gay marriage is immoral] is illegitimate only under the condition that a moral standard does not exist” (“Gay marriage question begs resolution,” 3/20).

If the full ugliness of these passages isn’t apparent to you at first glance, try reading them out loud. Neither is an example of extraordinarily bad writing, and that is because political writing is almost universally bad writing. By and large, we have become dulled to its badness; specifically, we have become dulled to witnessing a writer furiously gesturing toward meaning something without succeeding at meaning anything at all.

In Johnston’s case, the reader at least has a fighting chance of determining what ideas the author is gesticulating at. One of those ideas is the triviality that in a free society no question is ever impermissible to ask, whether of the time, the weather or sexual morality. But Johnston evidently means much more. Just in case any “moral standard” exists, he tells us, it is “legitimate” to ask whether gay marriage is moral. How about this: “The question of whether it is immoral to prefer apples to oranges is illegitimate only on the condition that a moral standard does not exist.” Obviously not. So the existence of a moral standard does not mean that every question is moral; so it is perfectly coherent to claim that some things are subject to moral assessment but gay marriage is not one of them. If that claim is wrong, it is wrong because of a mistake of fact, not of method.

What does a methodological error look like? Allow Krywanczyk to demonstrate: “The construction of a clear distinction between activism and debate only perpetuates the illusions that the incitement of dialogue cannot be a quintessentially activist technique or that activist endeavors are by definition not self-critical.” Two sentences later, he denounces “an essentialist feminist movement that attempts to promote women’s rights without challenging stereotypes of women that restrict them to their bodies.”

I confess that I have no idea what any of this means, and I hope that I will not have unwittingly restricted women to their bodies if I point out that Krywanczyk has no idea either. He cannot possibly mean what his words literally say: If the notion that self-criticism cannot be quintessentially activist is an illusion to be dispelled, what follows is that activism can be quintessentially self-critical — and that, presumably, is the good sort of activism. Hence, good activism is quintessentially self-critical. But good feminism is anti-essentialist. What then, is the good sort of feminist activism? Quintessentialist but anti-essentialist? Perhaps it is gratuitous at this point to note that Krywanczyk’s unexamined, uncriticized imperative to attack the “foundations” of “hegemonic, patriarchal” institutions relies on a thoroughgoing essentialism of its own.

Krywanczyk and Johnston, quite clearly, have very few political or even aesthetic sensibilities in common — at least on the surface. Below the skin, they are far closer ideologically than either would be happy to realize. What unites them is the lazy approach to political writing that is everywhere — left, right and center. To wit: A writer sits down at her desk, hoping to make a political argument. She has a general sense of what she would like to say, but has not yet thought through her argument with precision. She has two choices: 1) Do the slow, hard work of thinking before committing any words to paper, and the even slower, harder work of precise writing; 2) Skip thinking about her argument, and use her energy instead to cover up foolish and half-baked ideas with a mass of jargon and nonsense phrases, illogic and hand-waving. Across all ideological divisions, the overwhelming majority of political writers choose the second option, because it is easier.

Unfortunately, such laziness is not benign. The language that bad political writing debases is a communal resource, and not every instance of slovenly language is innocent. Orwell had his favorite examples: “Marshal Petain was a true patriot”; “The Soviet Press is the freest in the world”; “The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution”; and we might add another, courtesy of our president, “We do not torture.” Sentences such as these have long ceased to express anything resembling their ordinary language meanings, and instead are almost exclusively used to make vague and general declarations of political allegiance.

Speaking and writing in this manner makes it impossible to express any ideas except imprecise thoughts of approval and disapproval — which is why the struggle against semantic obscurantism is a political struggle. Xenophobia, blind obedience to the state, religious fundamentalism and all the rest of the political malaise of our time wither under the clarifying light of precise and vivid language. Imprecise and lifeless language, on the other hand — whether marshaled on behalf of feminism, gay rights or any other worthwhile cause — always and only serves the interests of authoritarianism and stasis.

Daniel Koffler is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.