“Ours is a language that makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style..” – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
George Orwell agreed that English is a language for obfuscating prose:
“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
Passive voice and rambling arguments that tack received phrases together into awkward experiments in rhetoric are definitely recurring problems for my blog. I enjoy probing abstract themes in my writing, but the results are often vague and convoluted.
Socially constructed ambiguity about which misunderstandings are real (cognitive distortions) and which are self-serving (cognitive biases) is a hallmark of politeness and political correctness in conversation and writing, respectively. Vagueness is habitual, and intrudes on private formulations of one’s thoughts even when social pressure is not at hand.
The pressure to keep secrets and smooth over differences is intense in everyday life. It is at its most pronounced in close personal relationships, where high emotion is always at stake and the trivial is elevated to immediate significance. Here a badly executed gesture of warmth can give pause to deep bonds of trust, and all conversation takes on symbolic value in the constant project of reinforcing informal socioeconomic ties with social glue.
Hence in our relating and identity-forming projects, we are astute revisionists, always looking for the right way to put things, never the bare truth. Even a secret disclosed is a project in the theatricality of revelation, not a matter-of-fact announcement. Facts barely enter into the choice of timing for such a move.
The rules of composition are closely knit with the rules of rhetoric, and reflective writing can hardly be rid of the tricks to rationalizing that are so ingrained in our social behavior as verbal animals:
- Euphemistic language
- Advantageous comparison (minimizing the harm from a morally compromising choice by proposing that it averts a worse outcome that would be an unintended consequence of what would otherwise be a morally preferable choice)
- Distorting the consequences of the action
- Displacement of responsibility (scapegoating)
- Diffusion of responsibility (to a team, an institution, or a profession’s imperfection, or even the structure of the service provision system)
- Victim blaming (e.g., you should’ve taken better care of yourself to avoid vulnerability to this harm, otherwise the complications from the harm-causing error would not have been as severe)
- Fragmentation (compensating for a morally reprehensible choice in one situation with morally upright behavior in another situation, either by figuring a few harm causing errors are outweighed by a career helping people successfully, or outside the helping professions, giving a portion of the fruits of corruption to charity or at least taking assiduous care of the welfare of one’s family)
Passive voice is rhetorically charged with avoidant intent as well. Re-describing wrongs to escape blame often entails using language that implies something bad “happened” without the involvement of human agency in compromising social norms.
It is utterly normal for helping professionals charged with care work or “love labors” to protect themselves with passive voice and rationalizations from anyone who would second-guess their performance. In the informal economy of care-giving relations, the same strategies come very naturally.
“The scope for self-protective intellectualizing is tremendous.” – Trudy Govier
What is available in words, what is mobilized in poetry, is a pregnant and malleable vagueness – rather than a reductionist, closed set of signs. On vagueness (paraphrased by Stephen Mumford from Timothy Williamson’s paper about Bertrand Russell’s work on vagueness): “(1) only representations are vague; (2) all language is vague; (3) there is higher-order vagueness; (4) vagueness invalidates classical logic; (5) vagueness is not generality; (6) accuracy is isomorphism; (7) precision is one-one correlation; (8) meaning is a special case of representing; (9) precision diminishes probability, and (10) vagueness is a natural phenomenon.”
What Joseph Stiglitz describes as information asymmetry is the game play of strategy and error when information can be withheld or suppressed in formal contract negotiations. The informal economy of care work exploits information asymmetry as well, but with different rhythms and outcomes. Some lies are gentler than the truth, and some make kindness possible where the truth would make reconciliation impossible. Not all deceptions aim at extortion at all.
But when information asymmetry is pervasive, when vagueness is extreme, decision making can be muddled on all sides and deception can become a self-defeating habit.
Posner identifies several tricks to gathering information from a disadvantage:
- Don’t let the better-informed party steer the conversation toward the points they prefer to make; use polite interruptions to prevent them from controlling the agenda, and insist on changing the topic as needed.
- Ask specific questions and pertinent follow-up questions, to avoid settling for non-answers or leaving openings for vague, evasive responses.
- Don’t bother asking what their conclusions or preferences are, as if it were in your best interests to humor their preferences or trust their stated conclusions; instead make them reveal how they arrived at their conclusions and preferences, using why questions to expose the scaffolding of their purported reasons.
- Notice whenever they give non-answers, as this at least indicates which questions they have reason to avoid answering.
- Withhold your own information as much as possible, and avoid any temptation to show off your knowledge, to make it harder for them to manipulate you as they would based on insight into your preconceptions and blind spots.
In injection safety research, I’ve found that a different approach works rather well. Gently anticipating rationalizations and demonstrating insight into the reasons for a deviant behavior can elicit more openness about its frequency. People who would not otherwise break ranks and inform on a surreptitious local practice are reassured when investigators are frank rather than cagey with them.
Organizational behavior theory has more to say about occupational information handling. Here I’m more interested in the role of information asymmetry in private life, as a source of power and a symbol of trust, as a way of easing frictions and flattering hopes, and as a habitual way of relating that omits facticity as a matter of course.
You can’t sell credibility. It disappears at the point of transaction. Influence in politics and the market is usually built on relationships, not bold claims about inside information made openly in search of customers. Trust built on familiarity is far more generous than credit in the market economy – it is unconditional, not just forgiving deceit but indulging it as a shared fantasy, a private alternate reality in which intimacy trumps interfering facts.
Baudrillard: “Reality is a dog.”
Vagueness is the only hedge we have against delusion, in this schema of love labors secured and served by an enveloping web of outrageous lies. It leaves room for the truth, in the indistinct capacity of a verbal residue, a fly on the wall buzzing harmlessly as witness to the deliberations of invention.