Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad language

I think I'm going to rename my paper on the value of clarity "The Ethics of Communication," a title suggested by James Klagge. It's a huge and understudied field, it seems to me. Lots of people talk about Orwell's essay on politics and the English language, but they tend to either agree uncritically or else dismiss it all for what often seem to be bad reasons. (The people I have seen dismiss it are Descriptivists, who David Foster Wallace takes on pretty successfully to my mind.) Lots of people have read Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, but not caring whether what you say is true or false as long as it gets results comes in many different flavors.

There is relatively little, as far as I know, that has been written on the ethics of language use. There is this course on social and political aspects of language, which looks great, and I haven't read most of what it covers, but it suggests to me that there is a field waiting to be ploughed. Maybe.

Anyway, as a step in the direction of the plough, here's a sort of list of concerns:
  • George Orwell famously warns about thoughtless and vague language, but he doesn't address careful vagueness or how to speak about such subjects as ethics, religion, and art. 
  • Harry Frankfurt, also famously, critiques bullshit: language intended to produce a certain effect but not concerned with truth. This is a broad category, though, including the relatively thoughtless (with the speaker perhaps hoping for no more than to be left alone) and the very careful (perhaps with very specific goals and clever ideas about how to achieve them). There is also the question of what to call language that is concerned with truth but that tries carefully to mislead without actually lying.
  • Steven Poole writes about "unspeak": language that tries both a) to imply an argument without defending it or making it explicit and b) to silence opposition.
  • I criticize what I have been calling "political correctness": language that is like bullshit but that is unconcerned, not necessarily with truth, but with conceptual accuracy. It is like unspeak, but it need not be deliberate. (I think I should perhaps call it something else because the term 'political correctness' is so loaded.)
  • Another linguistic vice is straightforward lying, although the ethics of lying are rather complicated
David Egan, drawing on others and on Wittgenstein's game analogy, notes some other potential problems:
  • Spoilsports (the relevant reference here is Gadamer, Truth and Method 1989, p. 102): not taking the (language-)game seriously 
  • Triflers (see Suits, The Grasshopper 2005, p. 60): respecting the rules of the game, but not its goals
  • Cheats (Suits again): recognizing goals but not rules
  • Sophists (as Egan sees it, p. 12) are like spoilsports but also deny the very possibility of achieving the goal of the game, e.g. Thrasymachus denying the reality of justice
Huizinga (Homo Ludens 1995) regards spoilsports as especially bad, but also closely connected to revolutionaries who reject one language-game, or set of language-games, but introduce new ones instead.

So, can we put all this together to come up with an initial sketch of the landscape? I will probably have to read Suits one of these days, but in the meantime I'm struggling to imagine exactly what cheating in a language-game would be. Lying, perhaps. Trifling, as the name suggests, sounds a lot like not taking the game seriously, which is what defines a spoilsport. And sophists just seem to be a kind of spoilsports.

Deliberate vagueness, carefully constructed (Jesuitical?) bull, and unspeak all seem like forms of cheating. While thoughtless vagueness and bull are more like being a spoilsport out of laziness.

The interesting area, really, (at least to me) is bullshit. Which seems to be quite popular these days.


  1. would be good to add all of the varieties of internet trolling and the like, and there should be some consideration of reader-responses/effects as well as grammar and possible motives of authors/sources.

    1. Yes! A whole book, or catalog, is called for. Perhaps there's one in the works.

    2. like my old D&D monster manual, I used to out trolls without feeding them in comment threads by claiming them as finds for my fictional fieldguide in the making, check out:

  2. So refreshing to read this! I said something along these lines, though less robust, a few days ago here:

    Some observations:

    i) I met a couple graduate students a week apart who were both studying ethical aspects of speech act theory, so I said to one, 'oh I met someone else looking at that topic last week', and he replied 'yeah, everyone is doing it now'. So yes, maybe a lot of people are getting the sense that 'there is a field waiting to be ploughed'.

    ii) I think a lot of reflection on the ethical and political aspects of language use and communication will be found in non-Analytic sources that insist on a less stark distinction between semantics/pragmatics and ethics/politics. I have a vague recollection of reading Derrida's, Foucault's, and Habermas' ethico-existential treatments of speech act theory.

    iii) I am getting more suspicious of 'bullshit' as a category worth employing in trying to understand the phenomena (or concepts). I read an opinion the other day that Frankfurt was being more tongue-in-cheek in the original essay than he later gave himself credit for in public. I think there is something to that. I sometimes think that Frankfurt's analysis is less about accurately describing what we mean by 'bullshit' or picking out some integral linguistic phenomena, than it is about the titillation that stuffy academics get when licensed to use cuss words in public. If I am right then the concept is, by its own definition, bullshit, and maybe should more rightly disappear up some collective intellectual arsehole.

    1. Thanks. I think you're right on all counts. Maybe not that Frankfurt's work is bullshit (although I've heard that said before), but I agree that it is far from being the last word on the subject.