Clouding the issue in complexity
Obfuscation – that’s a big word. A lot of people have difficulty spelling it I’ve noticed.
I have the advantage of my laptop’s autocorrect, but I struggle to pronounce it and I don’t use it much in conversation. Why? Firstly because I’d sound like a dickhead, but mainly because many people don’t know what it means.
And what’s the point of saying things that people can’t understand?
Strangely, there seems to be a lot of power in confusing people. Those who say things that are either meaningless or difficult to understand are commonly praised. In fact, doing both is seen as perfecting the art.
The trendy term for fluency in bulldust is ‘executive presence’. Dress it up in a suit, add some ego and it is rewarded and lauded as leadership.
We all know words can be used to pretend one thing and really mean another. ‘Humble bragging’ is a rather pathetic social media tactic used to blow one’s trumpet on the fake basis of humility – as in
“I have no idea how I managed to be awarded the Best Ever Sales Rep in the State #blush :D Wow what a surprise!”
This is the relatively harmless end of the spectrum, just like someone using highfalutin language to prove their intelligence.
But when I learned that there is a French expression uniquely applied to Australians that describes how we are too polite to be honest, it was as embarrassing as it was insightful. Are we really so indoctrinated to avoiding truth? This is moving up the scale from silly to serious.
Somewhere in the middle, are those weasel words in the workplace. These are usually more boring than dangerous and have the potential to be hugely funny in the right moment. I used to be responsible for the sustainability reporting at a ‘leading global diversified natural resources company’. Blow me down; I thought I worked in mining.
Meaningless gobbledygook can disengage people from serious discussions. Take this quote from a local environmental management strategy that claims to be a “high level strategic document that will provide the framework and an implementation plan to progress improvements in the built and natural environments”. Really? Let’s break that down.
High level by definition is not detailed. Yes, it can be strategic and you would actually hope it is or it is simply superficial. A framework is pretty much a high level strategy, so that is saying the same thing - a tautology. Just like 3am in the morning - one will do, don’t need both.
An implementation plan details the steps to getting something done. So why is that in a high level strategic framework thingy? And if getting something done is not about progressing improvements, what would it be about? Stopping them? Or progressing mistakes?
No comment on built and natural environments; I have been derided before for having a crack at planning and architecture double talk. It’s everyday language apparently.
So are we reading that document yet?
At this more sinister end of the artful dishonesty scale, language can mislead, create fear and cloud the real issue. Obfuscate: to confuse, bewilder, stupefy; to make unclear; to darken.
Legalese can stake the original claim here, but it has become ridiculous. I see people excluded from knowledge because they fear being called stupid for not understanding what is being said.
There is nothing stupid about trying to understand.
I like plain English. And may I ask that this not be called “dumbing it down”? It takes a lot of work to be clear and simple. And you are not dumb if you don’t understand pseudo-intellectual waffle that says nothing.
For a writer, plain English and simplicity is the pinnacle. Wrapping thoughts into complex language is not clever, despite some people thinking it is. I notice that children and people not blessed with education usually have a keen radar for crap.
The cheat sheet for professional writers is The Elements of Style. This book finds a friendly companion in the copywriting bible that sits on every advertising agency bookshelf, called Simple and Direct. Need I say more?
In what is a funny irony, the best example of a writing guide that I have seen belongs to the City of Greater Geelong. The City’s Guide to Plain English is exemplary. So next time you read a council briefing paper, receive a letter or read a planning document, be comforted that somewhere there is documented hope.
The Australian political conversation, on the other hand, is a disgrace. Dominated by smokescreens and soundbites, finding facts is a challenge. For everyone.
Next time you come across language that is hard to comprehend, remember that the act of seeking to understand is smart. If you don’t get it, the chances are you are not the dumb one.
You may just be witnessing obfuscation.