My last post took a first stab at saying what can be bad about simplification, starting with Orwell's thoughts on language and some recent reflections on them by Rowan Williams. Now I've read Williams' full lecture and have more to say. The first thing I have to say is that I think it's a great lecture and you should read it.
Secondly, I'd like to go through various things Williams, drawing on Orwell and Thomas Merton, says about the difference between bad writing and good. In a certain kind of bad writing:
everything is so organised that you are persuaded not to notice what it is you are talking about. And when that happens, you cannot intelligently converse or argue: all there is is the definitive language imposed by those who have power
More quotes from Williams about bad uses and forms of language:
- creating a language which cannot be checked by or against any recognisable reality is the ultimate mark of power.
- [Orwell identifies] the stipulative definition as one of the main culprits: a word that ought to be descriptive, and so discussable, comes to be used evaluatively. ‘Fascism’ means ‘politics I/we don’t like’; ‘democracy’ means ‘politics I/we do like’.
- those whose interest is in avoiding communication are those who do not want to be replied to or argued with. This sort of language aims to make us ignore the reality that lies in front of it and us.
- the lethal danger in prospect is a form of speech that silences the imagination of what words truly refer to.
- trying to make the reader see less [is] just what we have identified as the essence of really bad and poisonous writing
Some about good writing:
- the good writer attempts to speak in a way that is open to the potential challenge of a reality she or he does not own and control.
- good writing is a difficulty meant to make the reader pause and rethink. It insists that the world is larger than the reader thought,
- good writing comes from a sense of conversation already begun. We never have a world in front of us that has not been talked about and interpreted, and a philosophy that understands and accepts this is one that may be worth listening to.
And how to tell the difference:
- The paradox that Merton is asserting is that in order to be honest the writer sometimes has to be difficult; and the problem facing any writer who acknowledges this is how to distinguish between necessary or salutary difficulty and self-serving obfuscation of the kind both he and Orwell identify as a tool of power. I doubt whether there is a neat answer to this. But I suspect that the essential criterion is to do with whether a writer’s language – ‘straightforward’ or not – invites response. Both Merton and Orwell concentrate on a particular kind of bureaucratic redescription of reality, language that is designed to be no-one’s in particular, the language of countless contemporary manifestos, mission statements and regulatory policies, the language that dominates so much of our public life, from health service to higher education. This is meant to silence response. Nobody talks like that, to quote Jack Lemmon’s immortal comment to Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot. And so no-one can answer
- The final test is whether it makes us see more or less; whether or not it encourages us to ignore.
- The crucial question is whether the writing is directed to making the reader see, feel and know less or more.
I agree with pretty much all of this, but it's worth getting clear on what Williams is saying. One key point is that it is bad to speak or write in ways that cannot be checked against any recognizable reality. On the face of it this is problematic, seeming to leave little or no room for ethical, religious, or aesthetic judgments, for instance. But what it leaves room for depends on what we count as checking language against reality. "How can you possibly call this Côtes du Rhône jejune? Taste it again" could be (considered, accepted as) a way to check a claim against reality. That is, when we think about checking a claim against reality we are likely to think in terms of the discoverable concrete objects that Orwell mentions, so that where no such object is involved there can be no reality check. But it doesn't have to be this way. Reality does not need to be understood only as a set of concrete objects. It could also include experiences. and perhaps other things needed to make sense of this experience (such as numbers, love, or God, perhaps). Do all uses of language now count as potentially checkable against reality? Maybe, but Williams says more, and we should look at that.
A second big idea in what he says is that it is bad to use a descriptive word evaluatively. This too is problematic. Can it really be wrong to use words like 'metal' or 'last year' (as in "That's so last year") in an evaluative sense? That can't be right. But, again, we should look at what Williams identifies as essential and crucial claims.
Bad writing and speech, Williams says, silences, shrinks, or blinds. It evades response, makes the world seem smaller, and encourages us to ignore (by distraction, perhaps) or just not notice at least some features of reality. Good uses of language do the opposite: they not only invite but presuppose response (they belong to a conversation that has already begun), they increase awareness, and insist that the world is larger than we had thought.
Presumably, then, evaluative uses of descriptive terms are OK if they are good in this way. And proposed ways to check statements against reality that are good in this way, that invite response and increase awareness, are good too. Skepticism, on the other hand, e.g. about what it means if anything at all can potentially be counted as a check against reality, might be bad, tending to shut down both conversation and knowledge. (Although this seems to apply only to dogmatic skepticism, not honest inquiry which, after all, does invite a response.)