LAN­GUAGE SHOULD COM­MU­NI­CATE, NOT MA­NIP­U­LATE

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - OPINION - CHARLES FO­RAN SCOTT YOUNG

Wars over lan­guage, and through lan­guage, have come to shape our age

Charles Fo­ran is the CEO of the In­sti­tute for Cana­dian Cit­i­zen­ship, and the au­thor of 11 books.

Scott Young is di­rec­tor of ideas and in­sights at the In­sti­tute for Cana­dian Cit­i­zen­ship.

Here are two sen­tences that con­tain bad lan­guage: Af­ter con­sul­ta­tion, our stake­hold­ers are de­mand­ing that we weaponize our in­no­va­tions to en­sure real out­comes. It’s how we dis­rupt the sta­tus quo, en­abling us to bet­ter serve our clients.

In all like­li­hood, the of­fend­ing terms are easy to spot. Con­sul­ta­tion, stake­hold­ers, weaponize, in­no­va­tion, out­comes, dis­rup­tion, sta­tus quo, clients: Th­ese words are ubiq­ui­tous and, seem­ingly, con­vey­ors of mean­ing. They are state-of-the-art, but only if the art is not com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

Wars over lan­guage, and through lan­guage, have come to shape our age. Ev­ery day of­fers fresh bat­tles, fought on var­i­ous plat­forms by var­i­ous fac­tions and in­di­vid­u­als. Nearly ev­ery­one ap­pears to be in­volved in th­ese skir­mishes, start­ing with the Pres­i­dent of the United States on Twit­ter. No one is fol­low­ing any rules, never mind con­sult­ing any dic­tio­nar­ies.

Not long ago, most bad lan­guage came cour­tesy of gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda or ad­ver­tis­ing-agency blan­dish­ments. Now, the vo­cab­u­lar­ies of the con­sult­ing world and academia, in par­tic­u­lar, are erect­ing their own screens and bar­ri­ers.

For brevity, let’s out­line three broad cat­e­gories of screens – call them “lazy words,” “ob­fus­cat­ing words” or “ma­li­cious words” – and pro­vide ex­am­ples of each. A cou­ple of dis­claimers. First, given the over­all noise lev­els most of us live with – much of the vol­ume be­yond our con­trol – lan­guage over­sat­u­ra­tion is a huge prob­lem.

A term such as dis­rup­tion went from sharp and in­ter­est­ing to flabby and cyn­i­cal in the space of a decade, maybe less. It once con­noted some­thing dy­namic and op­ti­mistic, serv­ing as chal- lenge to long-stand­ing con­ven­tions. Now, it pri­mar­ily sig­nals some­one’s wish to sig­nal some­thing about them­selves.

Sec­ond, terms can mi­grate be­tween cat­e­gories de­pend­ing on who uses them, and why, and how. Our lazy word may be closer to ob­fus­cat­ing to some­one else. Words we con­sider ma­li­cious could be as­cribed as merely lazy. For ex­am­ple, as­sign­ing dark in­tent to the term con­sul­ta­tion might come as a sur­prise, although we think we are jus­ti­fied. You might even dis­re­gard this ex­er­cise al­to­gether, dis­miss­ing such lan­guage as sim­ply the busi­ness of do­ing busi­ness to­day.

But you should prob­a­bly be a lit­tle skep­ti­cal. A stake­holder now means ev­ery­one who might be im­pli­cated or in­ter­ested or have a mere tan­gen­tial stake in a project.

When de­fined that lazily, it ab­solves all par­ties of any di­rect re­spon­si­bil­ity. In­no­va­tion used to re­fer to new, more ef­fec­tive meth­ods for solv­ing old prob­lems. It has been drained of mean­ing, and is no more than a per­func­tory la­bel aimed at grab­bing at­ten­tion.

As a term of ma­li­cious in­tent, to weaponize likely re­quires no de­fence. It is an ob­scene term for any use other than a de­scrip­tion of some­thing cre­ated to kill. Con­sul­ta­tion is more open to dis­pute. Most, we sus­pect, would as­sign the term no deeper a hole than lazy, for its overuse, or per­haps ob­fus­cat­ing, for how it can sub­sti­tute for a plan.

But for many Cana­di­ans, most no­tably In­dige­nous peo­ples, a con­sul­ta­tion may now have lost so much cred­i­bil­ity or mean­ing that it rings of some­thing like its op­po­site: a process em­barked upon to en­sure noth­ing hap­pens, over and over, and even to dis­hon­our and dis­em­power the group be­ing con­sulted, also over and over. The term should be ap­proached with cau­tion in 2018.

Call­ing out such lazy, ob­fus­cat­ing and ma­li­cious words is more than an ex­er­cise. It is a good men­tal ex­er­tion: good for your mind, and for the English lan­guage. It is also to push back against ma­nip­u­la­tion and dis­tor­tion, and in­di­rectly re­assert first prin­ci­ples – that lan­guage is meant to com­mu­ni­cate, and to con­nect.

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