left out of the conversation

…..but with good reason

Words matter.

Definitions matter. 

Science Daily published an article last February about research demonstrating that the use of jargon by scientists communicating with the general public kills people’s interest in the content. In the study, participants who were exposed to jargon when reading about topics like self-driving cars and surgical robots said they were less interested in science than others who read about the same topics without the use of the “specialized terms.” They were also “less likely to think they were good at science, felt less informed about science, and felt less qualified to discuss science topics.” 

When I read this article, I thought of this excerpt from Orwell’s 1984:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. … Take ‘good’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought. 

1984 – Book 1, Chapter 5

There is a reason we have complex words. They allow us to be as specific as possible. The above excerpt is laughable due to the fact that even if you aren’t Merriam-Webster, you are still capable of conjuring up multiple examples where “good” is not sufficient. The plethora of complex words in our English language increases accuracy, clarity, and understanding. If you are a sports fan (or an English teacher), you’ve likely been a victim of a society’s vernacular decay.

How would you summarize your performance today?

 “Good.” 

How did you feel at different stages of the race? 

“Good.” 

Can you paint a picture of your childhood role models?

I had really good role models.” 

Describe your mental approach in overcoming obstacles to get to this point? 

“Good?”

The word ‘good’ doesn’t encompass every possible positive vibe. It does not have the capacity, nor the clarity to do so. Unfortunately, we live in an illiterate society. People don’t read. They don’t think. They don’t study. We’ve become dumber – yes, I said it – dumber. I know – we live in the age of the greatest technological advancements ever. We have more information at our fingertips than any other generation of humans. However, and perhaps due to this fact, we also are leagues behind our colonial ancestors when it comes to philosophy, reasoning, logic, and language. I recall listening to a podcast recently where a middle aged philosopher was struggling to make it through a book lent to him by a colleague. At the end of the story, he divulged to his audience the title of the book –  it was an introductory logic text for New England colonial kindergartners. 

All of this is to say, in order for us to get our point across, we need to effectively communicate with our audience, but not at the expense of accuracy. On the flip side, if we are truly an expert on a subject, we should be able to explain it to the most naive of audiences. When it’s possible to articulate concepts with universal words do it. When ‘plusgood’ won’t do, however, I think it is the reader’s responsibility, ultimately, to decide if they want to tango with the text or not. We shouldn’t dumb things down for the sake of making everything accessible. Some accessibility must be earned. As content advances in complexity, it requires an increase in specificity of language. Deal with it. 

The article goes on to say that when people don’t understand the words they are reading, they feel less able to comment and engage in the topic at hand. On the flip side, those exposed to “non-jargon” felt empowered. They considered themselves knowledgeable, and thus, able to state their opinions. 

Uh-oh. 

Ever come across a shared Facebook post where naive, uneducated people blabber on as if they are an authority on the topic? That never happens, right? 

Those exposed to the complex words felt “as if they don’t belong.” 

Well, maybe you don’t belong … yet. Study up. Educate yourself. Follow the line of reasoning of the experts, then make analytical counterarguments. This is how we progress, as individuals and as a society. I don’t think it is helpful to dumb down the language so that dumber people can comment with their dumb ideas. It makes everyone dumb. 

In some ways, Science Daily’s reporting of this published research represents its own problem. This line, describing those exposed to the complex words, reads: “readers still felt just as disengaged.”

Recall the actual findings of the study:

Left out jargoners felt 1) less interested, 2) less likely to think they were good at science, 3) felt less qualified to discuss science topics, 4) less informed about science.

It is possible to be HIGHLY engaged with topics which we don’t care about, aren’t good at, aren’t qualified in, and aren’t informed about. Engagement means interacting with content – following a line of reasoning, wrestling with the meat of the matter, looking things up when necessary, etc.

The end of the article has crazy implications. The immediate reflex of those who lack understanding is to disagree. Sad. What if the most sound argument requires the use of complex language? If – and when – it does, the pitchfork-nation populace (ever growing in numbers, by the way) will automatically disagree with it. On the other hand, the person with the correct stance is left getting tomatoes thrown at him…or being silenced altogether. 

Maybe that was Big Brother’s vision all along: 

“The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. … Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” – 1984 – Book 1, Chapter 5

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