The Rhetoric of Employees-As-Political-Beings

Wild Bill and I work at a small liberal arts college, which is, according to the tax code, a not-for-profit entity–although, given the cost of tuition, some parents may want to dispute that status.

I just received the following email from the dean here (all my colleagues did, too):

Dear faculty colleagues,

In this election year and especially as political activities heighten as we approach election day, it is important to remember the rules governing political activities on college campuses. We need to remain in compliance with applicable rules and regulations in order to preserve Puget Sound’s tax-exempt status as an educational institution.

Certain political activities are permitted and others are strictly prohibited. Essentially, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations such as the University of Puget Sound may not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. Two helpful resources for planning are:

• Puget Sound’s long-standing Political Activity Policy, which aligns with applicable laws and regulations and can be found on the university’s web site here.
• Specific situational guidance provided by the American Council on Education (ACE), with helpful examples of permitted and prohibited activities based on judicial and IRS rulings, IRS guidance, the Federal Election Campaign Act, and Federal Election Commission regulations. These ACE guidelines can be found here; item I.B.Y7 on providing opportunities for candidates to speak is particularly worth noting.

If you have any questions, [ ] or her delegate will help sort through the details of your desired political activity on campus and help determine what is and is not possible.

Of course, being a writer and teacher of writing (and not a lawyer), I focused on the last sentence and desired to excise “what is and is not possible” and replace it with “what is and is not appropriate, according to the regulations.” That is, it’s possible for me to campaign for someone on campus. It’s not appropriate, apparently.

Of course (part deux), I thought of Governor Romney’s allegedly having urged certain corporate employers to tell their employees whom to vote for: Romney, I’m assuming.

I do understand the rationale behind treating not-for-profits differently than for-profits. I’m just not sure I agree with it. In fact, I think a plausible (if not convincing) argument could be made that campaigning on campus would be instructive to students, especially those in a political science department. And a plausible argument could be made for inviting bosses not to lean on their employees about elections. What, eight hours of work isn’t enough for you? You have to bug me about your political preferences?

Finally, I’m mildly amused by the idea of a boss telling an employee whom to vote for. I imagine an employee responding with a “sure, boss,” followed by much eye-rolling once the boss is out of sight. I also imagine voting the opposite way, just out of spite. The situation is just a bit like the question of signing loyalty-oaths back in the 1950s. A colleague once opined that the most likely person to be first in line to sign the oath would be . . . a disloyal person–a spy, for example, or just a wag.

We are all political animals, or beings, Aristotle noted. Except when we wee are working for non-profits. Or when we are working for for-profits, in which case we are, apparently, children.

Main Points, Revisited, of Orwell’s Famous Essay

In a variety of venues, my co-blogger Wild Bill and I have been pointing out the degree to which George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has some problems and is often remembered (we argue) for the wrong reasons—namely, some points about such things as using foreign words and using the passive voice. We think it deserves to be remembered more for its major point, or premise, which is that political language, broadly defined, and other kinds of official language can harm people’s thinking, people’s capacity to analyze, and that this harm, in turn, can further make language more slippery.

We don’t imagine our critique of the weak parts of the essay will or could damage its stature, nor is that our aim. We do imagine that it is possible to line up the stature with what we think is really good and often missed about the essay.
That said, my purpose in this post is to summarize Orwell’s major points and put the minor ones in proper proportion, and I realize “major,” “minor,” and “proper proportion” are arguable.

Anyway, here goes:

Orwell’s main points, with some interpretation:

1. English is “in a bad way” because it’s been abused—sorry about the passive voice, George—by writers and speakers engaged in or affected by politics, which is by nature deceptive. (Orwell concentrates on writers, not speakers.)

2. I think what Orwell means by “the English language” is really public discourse in the form of political speeches, comments by punditry, political ads, and so on. That is, I’m not sure politics or anything but extinction can put “the English language” in its totality in a bad way. English exists and evolves, a protean phenomenon. People use it well or badly or just all right. It’s language in the public arena that’s in trouble—according to Orwell.

3. The misuses of English affect how people analyze writing and speech, how they interpret information, and how they make decision. That is, bad use of the language can lead to bad concrete effects such as terrible decisions and severely misinformed, badly duped citizens. The situation may become a spiral.

About those who use the language badly, often on purpose but sometimes just through bad habits, not malevolence:

1. Insincere people use it to deceive other people, to make bad things sound okay, and to delay doing the right thing. Orwell pins responsibility on insincerity. His version of “make bad things sound okay” is to make murder seem respectable (my paraphrase). A more current example is the description of torture as “enhanced techniques of interrogation.”
2. One main deception is to hide responsibility, according to Orwell. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, one in which the passive voice does indeed hide “the agent,” the one who made the mistake.
3. Sometimes the misuse springs more from laziness and carelessness than it does from insincerity. You know the degree to which we all, including journalists, pundits, those who work in governmental and corporate communication, politicians, academics, and “public intellectuals” (like academics who go on TV) get careless or lazy.
What does Orwell mean by this alleged misuse/abuse of English?

Specifically, he mentions things like clichés, dead metaphors (metaphors we’ve heard and seen a million times, such as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks), ready-made phrases (like the tired, hyperbolic phrase I just used, “a million times”).

As noted, he doesn’t like the passive voice, although he uses it quite a bit in the essay.

He doesn’t like foreign words/phrases because he thinks people use them to sound important or smart, to puff themselves up by puffing up their rhetoric.

He doesn’t like euphemisms (“enhanced techniques of interrogation”).

He doesn’t like specialized words—jargon.

This last part—specific alleged abuses that Orwell doesn’t like—is where Wild Bill and I think Orwell’s case is weak. For example, writers and speakers can use the passive voice and still be clear and have sincere motives, and they can use it and still pinpoint responsibility. Also, sometimes specialized words are fine, as are foreign words. Sometimes you need a specialized word or term, such as voi dire, to be precise. Same goes for foreign words/terms, like schadenfreude. We get his larger point about puffing up rhetoric, but we think he makes too much of some examples. Sometimes even metaphors that have been around a long time work fine, such as trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

We have two more objections that are related to the point above and that we think amount to a more significant critique. Let’s put the first in the form of a rhetorical question. George, is it really the passive voice and foreign words that have made the language of politics, political advertising, political journalism, and political punditry & partisanship so awful?

A second objection: is lack of clarity or directness always the main problem? For instance, when a candidate says, “I want to create jobs,” he or she is being clear and pithy. The problem is that the statement is empty. Another problem is that when, for instance, Newt Gingrich, echoing Romney’s economic “plan,” says (I paraphrase), “Yeah, some teachers and fire-fighters are going to lose their jobs—tough break”– and roughly 50% of the citizenry metaphorically nods in agreement. Too many teaching and fire-fighting jobs—that really the big economic problem? Cuts there are really the solution?

But let’s not get hung up on the policy-stuff or on GOPers v. Dems.

The point is that Romney, Gingrich, Obama, and politicians from across the spectrum often speak/write directly and clearly and still deceive. Now, it may be that fuzzy, slippery language helped to soften up some of the citizens so that they’re less likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute—that doesn’t make sense.” We grant that Orwell may be right about that. But in the specific instance, an absence of clarity isn’t the problem.

What to do, as a writer, not to get on Orwell’s enemies-list:

Make yourself write clearly, but of course keep the rhetorical situation in mind: the purposes and audience of what you’re writing. For instance, Wild Bill may write something in a political science article that seems unclear to me but only because I’m not part of his intended audience. People in his line of work will read what I read and in no way think it’s unclear.

Work on eliminating bad habits. Be less lazy and careless as you write and especially as you revise. When you revise, be kind of tough on yourself–but not pathologically so. It’s possible to get so compulsive you can’t get your work done.

Keep in check any lurking desires to “sound” smarter or more important than you really are. If you’re using writing or speaking to deceive and you know the deception to be wrong (sometimes deception is not wrong), check yourself. Say, “All right, I’m being a bull-shitter here, it’s not right, and I’d better go back and get rid of the bullshit”

Sure, clichés, jargon, stock phrases, and euphemisms may come up in your writing and make it less clear, precise, and honest. If so, edit them out. But other types of words and phrases may cause more problems than these, so don’t treat Orwell’s examples as gospel, or a s formula. Think for yourself.

Werbung über Alles

I don’t have too much to add to Wild Bill’s analysis of recent statements summarizing the business of a college’s board of trustees. Before I add my not-much, I will acknowledge that it is probably to the credit of academic freedom that Wild Bill and I may critically analyze such statements without being fired–yet. Also, as I was in on the ground floor of this blog, I know neither of us thought that the university’s use of language would be a primary (or secondary or tertiary) object of analysis.

But, as Wild Bill implies, when a university is this unabashed about “branding”–and when there are consultants out there who help universities and colleges “brand” shows that “branding” is a (the?) trend–it stands to reason that a blog about politics and language and Orwellian concerns would be tempted to weigh in, especially when the bloggers work at the institution.

The not-much I have to add is mostly an echo: when what seems like the main business of a trustees’ meeting is to discuss advertising, and when the statements about advertising (“branding”) mention the university’s “values,” the irony really is too rich. Similarly, when a college builds new dorms (residence halls)–as many have these days–and then creates programs to induce students to keep living on campus and then attempts to link this strategy to “values,” without admitting that the dorms pay for themselves and that more students on campus means more dollars in the coffers, then the stuff about values, once again, becomes suspect.

I would also add that if the university–any university or college–really wanted to play this corporate-advertising game, it would get more hard-headed about competing in “the market.” The problem is that most small liberal arts colleges say the same things about themselves, more or less. While they’re saying the same things, more or less, they will also claim how distinctive they are. I’ve said and written as much to people at the university, and I even had a business professor tell me I was on the right track. (I was astonished.) Basically, he said that if you’ve been in business for a long time, to continue to thrive you have to buy up some competitors (not an option with colleges) or differentiate what you offer from what “they” offer.

So that even if elements of the rhetoric Wild Bill analyzed weren’t preposterous and even if the contrast between “values” and “branding” weren’t so embarrassing, the strategy itself would look bad. I think the university has fallen for another scam. Before it advertises (or brands) it should come up with some real stuff that makes it different from the hundreds of other small colleges and their “values” and claims to distinctiveness. To echo Al Davis, the late owner of the Oakland Raiders (who, by the way, have the most distinctive “brand” in the NFL), “Just be distinctive, baby.”

How? Well, it’s not up to me, but since you asked, if I were a liberal arts college, I’d stop pretending that getting a job isn’t important to graduating seniors and their families. Sure, sure, every college has an employment and career office, and they all do good work. But I’m talking about making employment something departments have to think about as they plan their curricula and something students have to start thinking about more seriously at least two years before they graduate. And I’d craft an argument for why “liberal arts” and gainful employment go hand in hand, rather than recycling old arguments about the liberal arts making you flexible. I’d dare to be practical, in other words.

I’d also hit the race-thing head on. Most liberal arts colleges are still lily-white. They makes some noise about diversity, but they don’t follow through very well–for a variety of reasons, including “branding,” I fear. Again, I’d go contrarian and make “my” college more diverse more quickly and be known for that, instead of hanging back with the white pack.

But my main point is that when you get into the “branding” game, the game of liberal arts may already be over, but if it isn’t over, you’d better have something to advertise that’s different from every other liberal arts college, or you’re going to get taken by another consultant.

New branding-strategies aren’t going to address the several crises threatening higher education in general and expensive, insular, and insulated liberal arts colleges in particular.

“Dinosauria, we,” as poet Charles Bukowski phrased a similar problem.

Thanks to Wild Bill for wading in first–and much more effectively.

Way Past 1984

The calendar says we’re more than a quarter-century past 1984, but politics has taken has way past Orwell’s 1984, not to mention “Politics and the English Language.”

As symptoms, if not evidence, details from a paragraph in Eliot Weinberger’s review of George W. Bush’s (or is it Bush’s?–one of Weinberger’s points) book, Decision Points:

“This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.”

Just these these details alone overwhelm a person, and if the person is American, they embarrass and mortify.

A larger point Weinberger pursues in the review is that “Bush’s” book exemplifies much of what Foucault had to say about the disappearance of the author. Yep: W, the accidental post-modernist. Weinberger’s “take” is pretty interesting, even if you’re not partial to Foucault’s way of thinking. A link to the whole review:

Weinberger on W


George Orwell warned us against needless deployment of foreign words or phrases. In his list of rules, Orwell advised, “(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Is there ever good reason to use  “vis-à-vis,” or is “a vis-à-vis” a place-holder for a relationship we cannot define or sketch?

The use of “vis-à-vis” that I here question embellishes “in relation to” or “compared with,” I suppose.  When might “in relation to” or “compared with” not suffice and “vis-à-vis” improve on either?  I can think of none.

Is “vis-à-vis” an example of the pretentiousness or preening that Mr. Orwell scored?  Is this hyphenated French hi(gh)falutin?  Shall we all agree to lose the phrase or term?

Writing “Well”

If, following Orwell in “Politics and the English Language,” we strive to rid our language of hackneyisms, let us start well by starting from “well.”

Consider the following: “…  the YouTube video itself (which was apparently put up not by Lipkin, but by one of his fans) could well be the product of a lone conspiracy theorist. Which makes it all the more remarkable that it has racked up 2.5 million views.”

What does “well” add?

Don’t we add “well” because some respected speakers or writers were fond of inserting gratuitous words [“well,” “indeed,” “quite,” and so on]  into pronouncements?

Well, such trite additions might well make our speech or writing pretentious.

I hereby resolve to use my word-processor to search out uses of well that add words without adding or aiding meaning.

Well might you.

How to Appreciate Political Language as Fellow Citizens Do

“… The technical expertise that experts trade with one another is not what they produce for journalists or senators or even funding agencies. … The same capacity to disregard known attributes is also the essence of bureaucracy: individuals are reduced — defined down to — a set of features limited to the needs of the bureaucratic process. … Something similar is true of rituals and ceremonies and performances in general. These are successful to the extent that everyone concerned — actors and audience — tacitly suspend the reality-testing apparatus through which they try to conduct everyday affairs. If someone points out loudly that the emperor has no clothes or that Peter Pan has a bigger bust than Wendy [where women are playing each part], the charm — the magic — of the performance is in danger of being lost. … Pay attention to what is in the frame and, although you know perfectly well what the meaning would be outside, disregard it.” F. G. Bailey, THE PREVALENCE OF DECEIT (Cornell University Press, 1991)

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