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Government Language Utilization: the Tower of Babel Resurrected


ISSUE:  Winter 1983

A an English teacher wanting to break the classroom routine and to experience what is billed as the “real” world, I accepted for a year a temporary appointment as a writer/editor for the Department of Interior. I was stationed in Montana, where I wrote and edited documents involving federal land management and especially the federal coal leasing program. Having read for twelve years freshman themes and the prose of educationists and college administrators, I thought my linguistic sensibilities were utterly benumbed. But I was shocked to discover that the Tower of government Babel was more stupefying than any other yet experienced. My shock derived, I think, from realizing that grownups were doing this writing and that they were doing it presumably to further the business of our nation. To preserve sanity, an intellectual thinks, or tries to. And so I’ve set about examining the way people in government use language and why they do it that way, a process that follows full circle from the comic to the tragic.

What first strikes one about writing in the government is its voluminous quantity. English teachers sometimes complain about a profession that requires countless hours rereading interminable novels by Melville and Thackeray. But picture the grim-faced, glassy-eyed bureaucrat hunched over a deskful of Xeroxed government papers. Pray for him and rejoice that thy poverty has spared thee such a fate.

The problems with government writing go beyond volume and far beyond strict grammar, which can be quite correct. To begin with a general description, government writing is wordy, repetitious, and redundant, sometimes all in the same passage. Furthermore, government writing is highly qualified, with cautious provisos for every contingency. It also safely sticks to the general and the abstract, shunning the specific and concrete. Except for the weariest of clichés, metaphors are forbidden. The “bottom line,” as we say in the bureaucracy, is that our writing is as bland as a drink of warm water.

With government diction, one commonly meets the Protean Preposition. Throughout the history of the English language, the stock for prepositions has been going steadily up. This is especially true of American English, which every few years fills a new bucket of idioms built with Protean Prepositions. The government particularly is “into” these little expressions in a big way. They come as adjectives with the preposition on the front—”ongoing,” “on-site,” “in-house,” “on-board,” “outreach”—with the preposition on the back—”hands-on,” “start-up,” “fall-back”—and with the preposition in the middle—”toe-to-toe,” “eyeball-to-eyeball.” Prepositions can also be “verbalized”—”to get a handle on,” “to sign off,” “to buy off on.” These grammatical chameleons seem to achieve widest circulation when noun expressions are needed—”update,” “input,” “output,” “feedback,” “intake,” “add-on.”

The transmogrification of prepositions works this way: in search of an abbreviation or simply a catchy new expression, speakers borrow these words from their lowly function of only showing connection between nouns and the rest of the sentence and elevate them to full-fledged partnership with the principal grammatical parts—adjectives, verbs, and nouns themselves. The transmogrifications become sanctioned when government writer/editors issue an updated, inhouse manual on whether to write these expressions as one word, as two (or three), or as hyphenated.

The idioms made with Protean Prepositions, while galling to the language purist, are downright colorful beside the Inert Intensifier, It is a restful government sentence that does not assert that something is of critical, primary, basic, principal, major, key, main, or fundamental significance or importance. In such sentences—sentences that always tell and never show—the intensifies have become lifeless and end up performing exactly the opposite of their original function, of emphasizing, of intensifying.

It will surprise nobody to learn that many government officials dote on the cliché. Clichés are like dialect—they are regional and are constantly changing. Because of the bureaucrat’s habit of traveling to visit his co-worker—instead of writing letters, which are troublesome—any given region is routinely receiving a fresh new stock of clichés. When a Washington official left our Montana State Office, for example, the atmosphere fairly hummed with his favorite expressions, his capital calling cards: “budgetary constraints,” “management tools,” and “viable alternatives.”

In the Montana government cliché region, the largest category of clichés pertains to thinking and work. Here you don’t write up your idea; you “crank it out.” However, before you “get a handle on” or “fix on” your idea, and certainly before you try to get your supervisor to “buy off on” the idea, you might “for analysis purposes” consult the “expertise” of a colleague in a “sleeves-up” session in order to get his “gut reaction.” Then you would present your idea to your supervisor on a “poop sheet.” Working with figures is “number crunching,” and with words it’s “information flow,” although in point of fact the words get crunched just as much as the numbers.

Another thinking cliché is the word “brainstorming,” which is very popular in government. “Brainstorming” conveys the image of intellectual crashes of thunder and bolts of lightning. Such is not the case, although the sessions are often noisy. In fact brainstorming means a group of people meeting interminably and “shooting from the hip,” a process that often results in soggy, riddled ideas. Anything to avoid writing.

A considerable subcategory of the thinking cliché is a kind that carries the metaphor of the spectacle, usually of sports or of playacting. The “scenario” for thinking or your “game plan” is to “touch base” with your colleague, and in a “oneon-one” session you “bounce some ideas off” of him. If he has been out of town for a few days, you will help him “get his act together” so that he does not have “to play catch-up” and so that he can “hit the ground running.” You give him the “ball-park figures,” and for brevity you limit your discussion to the “big picture.” You need this colleague on your team, because it is understood that ideas are in competition. Of course, you don’t want to “strike out” with your idea. When the going gets tough, you may have to resort to “hard ball.”

On a big project that is hopelessly behind, you can always resort to computer “modeling,” which is the latest style in thinking. Modeling is a substitute for complete analysis and for human cogitation. It means feeding supposedly representative information to a computer and subjecting the information to an infinitude of variables. In my experience, the technique is usually invalid because the data is so hypothetical and skimpy. Let modeling speak for itself. This passage is from the “Mid-term Energy Forecasting System,” a model for projecting national energy needs. Bear in mind that this document is intended to inform the public: “First, the quantities of each energy commodity demanded at various fuel prices, by region and by sector (residential, commercial, industrial and transportation), are generated by the demand submodel. The latter is a set of region and fuel specific demand equations which are estimated from an econometric demand model containing cross elasticity terms for all substitutable fuels.” Like a model in the fashion world, an analytical model like this is for show. Like the bloodless model of Madison Avenue, it keeps a man at arm’s length.

All this attention in thinking and work to spectacle, to appearance, brings us to the word “perception,” a word that has made its way to government from psychology and the social sciences. President Reagan and Morris Udall don’t disagree on environmental issues—they simply have “differing perceptions.” Reagan was not wrong when he said trees cause pollution—it was only a “perceived error.” (Boy, was it perceived in the Interior Department!) With this use of the word “perception,” relativism has been carried to its absurd conclusion.

In Montana, when our thought processes go awry, we have a ready bagful of euphemistic clichés that we can use to designate our errors and to palliate them. For instance, mistakes are “bugs,” or “flies in the ointment,” or “glitches.” An error is something that has “fallen through the cracks,” leaving you “caught between a rock and a hard place.” In government you don’t want to be too “up front” with people because you might discover glitches “down the road,” and this would jeopardize your “fall-back position.” Out of understandable timidity and to avoid being held fully accountable for errors, whenever possible writer/editors label a document “draft” or “preliminary draft” or “tentatively recommended pre-preliminary planning draft.” It would be foolhardy to label prematurely a document as “final.” This way the glitches would be “cast in concrete,” thereby leaving you no “wiggle room.” Finally, from the bordello, we have the goof as a “snafu” and sloppy work labeled as “quick and dirty.” If we gave any thought to the language we use, we would see that a quick and dirty job is bound to lead to snafus. It’s time to “clean up our act.”

Using cute clichés to refer to mistakes makes them seem less harmful, and the familiarity of these timeworn expressions makes one feel at home with glitches. A person can almost forget that he’s talking about mistakes.

Clichés are so common in government that some are losing their purity and are becoming mixed. For example, a bureaucrat may have a “strange feeling in the back of his mind” or a “gut intuition” that there is a “glitch lurking in the closet,” or even worse, in “the woodpile.” Someone who is proved wrong is said to have been merely “barking in the wind.” Impatient with a wordy subordinate, a senior civil servant in Montana habitually asks, “what’s the punch line?” The inability to keep the clichés segregated, to keep the “punch lines” from the “bottom lines,” is a linguistic phenomenon that stands in need of a name. Perhaps “malaclichiéism” will do. The term “hard-core”—soon to be one word—is another example. This expression had its narrow beginning as a description of dedicated criminals, was expanded to include unfortunates in the ghetto and the unemployment lines, and now is applied to anyone who is determined about something. Under James Watt, the Interior Department is devoted to counteracting the effects of “hard-core nature lovers.”

* If “in-house” has arrived, can “out-house” be far behind? What kind of paper will “out-house” documents be written on, I wonder?

II

Clichés are the sometimes playful and profane babble in the Government Tower; jargon is the serious and sacred cant. To appreciate the aptness of the allusion, look at the language of an environmental impact statement. If you read the law, you learn that an environmental impact statement should be written in “plain language,” at the level of a newspaper. It should inform the citizen reader, the law says, and help him to become involved in decisions about public land use. If you read the environmental impact statement itself, however, you will meet a geologist talking about alluvial valley floors, LMUs (logical mining units), and KRCRAs (known recoverable coal resource areas); a sociologist talking about infrastructure and negative labor force residuals; a range scientist talking about AUMs (animal unit months); a hydrologist talking about evapotranspiration; a forester talking about MMBFs (millions board feet); an economist talking about operational baselines and computer population modeling; a wildlife biologist talking about strutting grounds and riparian habitat; and a project manager, a generalist, talking about categorial exclusions and PRLAs (preference right lease applications). Enough! Even the specialists, the writers themselves, cannot understand each other’s tongue waggings.

What exactly is jargon? It is the mystical language of some in-group. Whisper the magical intonation at the door, “synergistic input”; the door opens, and you are met as brother. All fields of knowledge, some more than others, create a certain amount of necessary specialized language. To make a new word or phrase or to change a word from its accepted usage, the rule should be that the effort must be justified by the need to express a genuinely new idea. Much specialized language today is jargon precisely because it is unnecessary, because it embodies nothing new. This language is like the emperor’s new clothes—look with the eyes of a child at the pretending language, at a phrase like “negative labor force residuals,” and you find not a naked thought, but merely nakedness itself.

The other major form of jargon is the use of specialized language in inappropriate situations—that is, technical language addressed to the nonspecialist, as in the examples above. In environmental impact statements, the reader often encounters long passages bristling with arcane abbreviations and acronyms: EIS (environmental impact statement), SSA (site specific analysis), stip (stipulation), ACEC (area of critical environmental concern), SVIM (Soil Vegetation Inventory Map), and FONSI (finding of no significant impact). Not everybody knows that a PIPR is (performance improvement position review), or a SOP (standard operating procedure), or a PIS (public information specialist).

Not a major impediment, but annoying nevertheless, are the jargonish neologisms which are formulated by changing nouns into verbs, a process that the government does at a somewhat faster rate than the national average. Popular favorites are “sensitize,” “maximize,” “digitize,” “finalize,” and “prioritize,” the last of which has reached the top of the chart, nudging out “utilize.” In government you can “access” information on a computer, or you can “manualize” it. In addition to signing or initialing a document, you can “surname” it. Also there are subtly different ways to mail information to a co-worker—you can “blue envelope” it or, if you wish, “buck slip” it. In Montana it’s open season on verbalizing nouns.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the roadblocks of jargon can be found in communication. In communication terminology one hears of “information flow” and of “tracking information.” The “fast track information system” is a communication “facilitator.” Meetings and workshops are often run by “facilitators.” Less and less do government workers have simple talks with one another. Instead, they “relate” to each other, they “interact,” even though they may only be chatting about Monday night football. Our more pompous visitors from Washington think of such interaction as building professional “interpersonal relationships.”

Today it is possible to “interface” with a colleague, even a colleague of the same sex. The word “interface” had its humble origins in sewing, was then elevated to synergistics and to refer to the place of overlap between two systems or disciplines. It has now been demoted to banality through its hackneyed application to any two people or things that have something to do with one another. One could predict the word’s eventual appearance in environmental writing, which studies ecology. Ecology refers to the stunning recent discovery that things in the organic world are interrelated. “Interrelated,” however, won’t do. Some word as commensurately grand as the discovery is required. Ecotypes in the ecosystem “interface,” often with synergistic impact.

For those of us who see such linguistic usages as a serious impoverishment of the human spirit, who wish to wield at least a penknife in the cause of deflating such bloatedness, what to do? Being professorial and sober has not worked. Perhaps our only recourse is to agree to use jargon freely ourselves, to use these words to even greater excess and in even more ridiculous contexts than we have already met them. Would it help, for example, would people catch on, if we spoke of interfacing our sandwiches with synergistic layers of peanut butter and jelly?

The heavy-duty diction is euphemism. Take the wellestablished phrase “surface mining.” What reality does this term mask? Picture a site that may be tens of thousands of acres in size, with one area of hundreds of acres that has an open gash that is two hundred or more feet in depth, a hundred or more feet in width, and many hundreds of yards long. On one side of the gash, picture the tailings of overburden and topsoil heaped into mounds a hundred or more feet high. On the other side, picture the behemoth dragline with its drones of haulback trucks. Picture the coal dust rising into the atmosphere. Know that the ranchers’ precious aquifers are destroyed forever, to a circumference of anybody’s guess, and that the groundwater is polluted.You may know this scene as “strip mining,” rather than by its disguise, “surface mining.” In official terminology the land described above is said to have been “disturbed.” To me, “disturbed” suggests perhaps that you’ve only interrupted the sleep of a few rabbits.

What you end up calling a subject carries with it all sorts of assumptions about what it actually is and about how you regard it. The government made one of its biggest concessions to the coal industry by the very act of adopting the industry’s nomenclature. The sad part is that it is doubtful whether government-regulation writers debated or even thought much about which terms to employ. As any poet would find, when you step from the world of bureaucrat and technocrat into the realm of the so-called ordinary man, you are likely to breathe fresher linguistic air. In the case of strip mining, the truth and reality are to be found in the coal miners” irreverent nickname for the dragline and stripping bucket, the “Gypsy Rose.”

Consider one more instance of euphemism. A memo from the Office of Surface Mining states that a law is pending which would allow under certain circumstances in strip mining what the memo calls “gravity transport.” It would be unfair if I did not pause here to let you try to guess what this term designates. As Mark Twain would say, you could think for a hundred years, and even then you would not be able to decipher it. “Gravity transport?” You are probably thinking along the lines of some application of Newtonian physics. But you are wrong. Here is the memo’s definition: “a mining term meaning that excess spoil falls from an upper bench down a highwall to a lower bench under its own weight.” Forget that the phrase “excess soil” has no meaning, since everything in strip mining except the coal is “excess.” A simple translation of the phrase would be that the spoil is falling into the mining pit. This faulty mining practice could have serious environmental consequences. Thus the government is thinking of condoning this sloppy mining under the grotesque disguise of calling it a “gravity transport operation,” as if gravity were one of the “operations” of a mining company, like the dragline and haulback operations.

III

The babbling diction of government writing comes bound in contorted sentence structure. There are dazed pronouns that ask, “What am I doing here?,” there are homeless participles that dangle helplessly in alien regions of their sentences, and there are modifiers that cry out for their parts of speech like forlorn lovers calling across a chasm. Also, the sentences are skewed, not parallel—like good Americans each clause in a series grammatically asserts its own rugged individualism, its right to do its own thing. Don’t look for transition, even though government sentences are sprinkled with the weak connectives, which often illogically jump up in the reader’s face—”therefore,” “however,” “nevertheless.” When the reader meets these little surprises, he is prompted to wonder whether he had been dozing and therefore missing something. The more substantial strategy for joining sentences and paragraphs, repeating a key word or phrase from a passage above, is absent. Taking the place in environmental writing of this normal practice in transition are no less than six categories of numbered and lettered subheadings and sub-subheadings. In environmental documents each paragraph is an island unto itself.

Another syntactic sin, one that has received much attention recently, is what has been called the “noun/noun construction”: “inventory needs assessment.” My term for this infraction is “piling-on,” which can include an occasional adjective among the indiscriminately heaped nouns: “best available control technology pollution-control equipment.” One might at first be intrigued by the thought that with the emergence of piling-on our language is reverting to its Germanic origins, an age of syntactic permissiveness. It was in those days as Twain says it is today with modern German when a man “dives into his sentence” and “that is the last you see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth” (Connecticut Yankee). One quickly realizes, however, that piling-on is no such tribute to our Germanic roots. In its evolution modern English has lost most of its Germanic inflections, those little prefixes and suffixes to words that indicated their relationship to the others in a sentence and which made word placement in Old English a secondary consideration. The truth is that the haphazard piling on of nouns is flatly unnatural, a violation of the very nature of modern English. In addition to the preeminence of word order, what modern English has concentrated on to take the place of the lost inflections is the ubiquitous Protean Preposition. What is natural to the evolving course of modern English is that we should be “into” prepositions, finding new, though sometimes gauche, roles for them.

It is hard to resist dragging these Teutonic monsters from their lairs into the light of day: “interagency visitor contact-interpretive center,” “modular-design distributed-parameter hydrologic model.” Consider a comparatively innocuous example of piling-on: “information systems theory.” Without the prepositions the reader has no clue to the relationship between these jumbled nouns, and he can only choose randomly from the possible permutations: “theory of information systems,” “information about systems theory,” “system of information theory,” “theory of systems information”? What a difference a preposition makes.

The crime against syntax in government is further compounded by the routine preference for the passive voice. Richard Mitchell (Less than Words Can Say) aptly calls the passive as used in Washington government writing the “Divine Passive.” Washington writes down to its citizens: “It has been brought to the attention of this office . . .” (Mitchell, p. 52). In the field offices of the government, the motive is not so much to intimidate from Olympian heights, but to evade: “visibility quotients art being analyzed, “the grazing program was examined,” “the pressure of bird hunting is being studied.” The Evasive Passive makes it sound like nobody is at home in the government.

A chief cause for the flabbiness of government syntax can be attributed to the awkward handling of subject and verb. The subject and verb should be the foundation blocks for sentence building—these two should bear the load of meaning. To illustrate government subjects and verbs, I have chosen the following sentence as typical and average:

Because the ranking and selection of coal tracts will be based on the site specific analysis report prepared for each tract, it is critical that a full, complete documentation with rationale of all the pertinent elements critical to the leasing and development of the tract be made.

First of all, the subject and verb here cannot pack much power because they amount to no more than the pitifully weak, “it is.” Second, “it is” is swallowed alive by some 15 piranhas of adjectives, adverbs, clauses, and phrases. Symptomatic of the way the government sentence bombards the reader with modifiers is the redundancy of adjectives in “full, complete documentation.” Also the adjective “critical” is used twice—if everything is critical, then nothing is. Third, the typical government sentence separates the subject and verb by light years. Our example does not commit this error in the main clause, as the naked “it” and “is” huddle close in the middle, as for warmth. But look at the typical placement of subject and verb in the dependent clause in the second half of the sentence: “[it is critical that] a full, complete documentation with rationale of all the pertinent elements critical to the leasing and development of the tract be made.” Syntactically, as well as semantically, the effect is breath-taking. Such government sentences need to be simmered overnight in the crock pot, to get the fat out. What’s left in the morning might only be, “Please document your coal tract reports.” Such skimpy remains might embarrass the original author of the sentence, but the reader will live longer on such a lean and literate diet.

IV

What effects, consciously or unconsciously, are government authors aiming for in their painful writing? With such contorted sentence structure, they may be trying to lend their prose a sense of complexity. The jargon is intended to give the impression of depth and learning. The real result, as we have seen, is befuddlement. Also, alienation. If the language is not attached to reality, then neither will be the people who write and read it. Make no mistake, poor writing is a major impediment to the work of American government—and a major cost to the American taxpayer.

Is the awful government writing planned or is it accidental? From my own observation, the principle is the closer you get to Washington, D.C., the more the writing seems consciously designed to obscure and deceive. It was a Washington bureaucrat who devised the deception, “gravity transport operation,” and he did so with malice aforethought. There are some authors in government, however, who could not write clearly, no matter how hard they tried. Most in the district offices could do better, with the proper incentives and positive leadership. Even though they don’t perform their best, one must view their writing, in my opinion, with a measure of charity. They are beleaguered civil servants, abused unmercifully by their supervisors in Washington and lambasted by everyone, from the public to English teachers to the president. They are often trying to implement and write about laws that are hazy to begin with. Add to this that they are inexperienced in writing. Is it any wonder that they unconsciously reach for the handiest jargon and settle for less than total clarity? Are there particular handicaps within government that make writing an especially difficult task? Yes, difficult and frightening. In the Department of Interior, writing is based on accumulated layers of confusing instruction. First, Congress passes a law, which generally leaves gaps and ambiguities. Next, national guidelines to implement the law are written, then agency regulations, then more guidelines from various Washington offices within the agency. Finally, each regional office within the agency adds its instruction memoranda on how to put the law into effect. Of course, the legal profession, with its own tongue, has been contesting from all political spectrums all aspects of the law at every stage. Faced with this pandemonium, the government planner freezes at the prospect of making an unequivocal decision, much less putting it in clear writing.

The terrifying confusion leads government writers to flock together, creating the phenomenon of multiple authorship. In writing, multiple authorship is the equivalent of brainstorming in talking, with similar results. No single author writes even a significant segment of a given document, and everybody adds to, deletes, and revises what everybody else has written. Gone is pride in authorship. It is therefore impossible for a supervisor to reward and punish good and bad writing, presuming he could make the distinction.

But government writing is not much different from or worse than writing in our country in general; the deepest causes for its deficiency are to be found not within government but within the nature of modern society itself.

Because Americans have always been materialists, perhaps we have always been inclined towards nominalism. Today, at any rate, the materialistic orientation of our society has gone so far that the citizen’s role is increasingly restricted to that of the mindless consumer. In the business world of advertising and in politics, the language used to sell our American Way of Life can’t help but teach our citizens that language is not a conveyer of truth but a medium of deception and thought control. When teachers tell students that true and accurate use of language is necessary for success in our society, somewhere in the back of their minds a gate slams shut.

Look at language in politics and foreign policy. Today we increasingly see distinguished university professors, like athletes at the start of the game, line up to espouse the political and economic “truth” according to their corporation, their think tank, or their foundation. Thus truth is abandoned in the scramble for credibility. We recently shot down a Libyan plane, and we went to war in Vietnam as “scenarios” to gain credence as a tough world power. A recent study of the MX missile system (David Gold, Misguided Expenditure) “concludes that the only conceivable rationale for the MX seems to be the Pentagon’s fear that “we will be perceived by the world as weak”” (reviewed in The Nation, Sept. 5, 1981; emphasis added). Will there be no consequences to language from public policies based on appearances and perceptions? The consequences, as we saw earlier, are that thinking and work have more and more been reduced to the sports spectacle and to playacting. Sooner or later, we were bound to elect a professional performer as president.

In order to sell the ever more useless goods in our materialistic society, we have had to create a value system that negates values themselves, by saying that all goods are equally valuable. Perhaps at work here is the concept of relativism, appropriated from the social sciences. If people can be hoodwinked into buying something, then that good becomes valid in proportion to the percentage of purchasers. If you apply the same thinking to punctuation, you promote illiteracy.

The consumer system in our society depends for its survival on the American fantasy of total personal, sexual, and material gratification, a fantasy pandered to by television, movies, professional sports, advertising, Playboy, The Ladies Home Journal, and so on. Individuals preoccupied with self-gratification do not possess the discipline necessary for writing, and they tend to drift toward a philosophy of life captured in such linguistic profundities as “go for it!” “do your own thing,” and “you only go ‘round once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can get.” The mushrooming of all the group therapy fads also contributes to the erosion of discipline. A person who has been taught to see his little emotional problems as big life-stoppers and who has been taught to see himself as ill rather than weak or lazy will not have the discipline or the sense of responsibility necessary for writing. Such a person, busy “getting his head together,” tends to bring to traditional grammar an undesirable subjectivity.

We cannot look to the public schools and the universities for solutions. In fact, the universities, which help to manufacture and distribute the jargon discussed earlier, are part of the problem. Since people are staying longer at the universities these days, the influence of the educational, psychological, and sociological jargon-mongers is exacerbated. At the other end of the school system, the children are being thrust from the family, where normal English can still be heard, into the schools and childcare centers at ever earlier ages. It is sad and scary to think that for our children the aberrational language I have discussed—the prattling clichés, the nefarious jargon, the dishonest euphemism, the tortured syntax—might seem normal. As words are torn from truth and reality, so are people. Will their world truly be “unreal”?

Trying to discover the causes of illiteracy in our country, we have looked too long at the surface: anti-intellectualism, word processors, the quantification craze, television, crowded English classes, open-door admission policies, the decline in family discipline, and so on. Since in some periods of our history literacy has been taught more successfully than at present, under these or other handicaps, why do we not insist on literacy once more? The sorry answer must be that on the whole our consumer society doesn’t want it, deserve it, or—still worse—won’t tolerate it. What would happen to an economy predicated on mindless consumption if the majority of customers were masters of clear language and hence possessed the tool for clear thinking? How long would the deodorant industry stay healthy, or the cola manufacturers, or the junk food, producers? How long would the practice of planned obsolescence be permitted in a world of shrinking resources, or how long would a thinking citizenry abide a national defense policy based primarily on “mutually assured destruction” (MAD)? For that matter, what would be the fate of many of our politicians and of our oil companies? We must at least consider the possibility that our consumer society has developed more or less the level of illiteracy that it requires. It follows, then, that a higher literacy can only flourish when our social and economic systems need it and reward it.

We do not lack for warnings about the state of the art of writing. Many recent books and essays admonish us. As far back as Genesis, we learn of the “confusion of tongues” that fell upon the children of Shinar. The confusion was God’s punishment for man’s presuming to build the Tower of Babel, the “gate of Heaven.” As with Babylon, our civilization does not lack for pride, in buildings and in all material things. But in our age the Lord’s retribution comes more mysteriously. And more slowly. With us, the babbling confusion of tongues slips up so gradually that we are hardly aware of it or of what it portends.

* My description of modern society in this paragraph derives in part from Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, 1978).

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