On bullshit: the value of clarity, precision and economy
“Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.” Ezra Pound
I’ve always been of the opinion that saying what you mean clearly, precisely and without undue verbiage is something of a boon to understanding, but it would appear that to some such writerly virtues actually reduce meaning. For instance in this publication from Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain we’re told that
Today’s ‘clarity- mongers’ are not attacking metaphysics, as did past empiricist/analytical philosophers in the Anglophone tradition. Now, crudely, they don’t like what they can’t understand… philosophers’ ‘clarity’ might not be clear to others… Well-known analytical philosophers of the last century, such as A.J. Ayer, were said to be ‘deceptively clear’. The clarity was superficial and, on deeper examination, many key assumptions and concepts were very far from clear… In his classic 1945 article ‘Clarity is not enough’, Price claimed that some very important things cannot be said clearly. (p. 18)
How have we arrived at a point in time where saying what you mean, intelligibly, explicitly and with no room for confusion, is something to dismiss as the concerns of ‘clarity-mongers’? Is it fair to scoff at those who struggle to understand the abstruse as just not liking what they don’t understand? And can it really be true that there are some very important things which cannot be clearly articulated?
In his 1986 monograph, Writing with precision, clarity, and economy, magazine editor Dick Mack was at pains to point out that “verbiage, obscurity, and imprecision in manuscripts slow the editorial process and ultimately hamper communication.” This matters because we want our thoughts both to serve some sort of purpose and to be remembered. What’s memorable is “…clear, brief, and forceful. No one would willingly consign his work to obscurity, but we do so with imprecise, ambiguous, and verbose manuscripts.”
In the prologue to Plain Words, Ernest Gowers put the problem like this:
The fault of bad writing is not that it is unscholarly but that it is inefficient. It wastes time: the time of the readers because they have to puzzle over what should be plain, and the time of the writers because they may have to write again to explain their meaning. A job that needed to be done only once has had to be done twice because it was bungled the first time.
In contrast, as ex-Tesco boss, Terry Leahy said in Management in 10 Words: “Trying to express complex thoughts in simple English… is demanding, challenging and takes time.” In order to be clear, precise and economical you need to know your subject matter inside out. I’ve no doubt there are very many things which, no matter how clearly expressed, I would struggle to understand but to state that the deficit is with the student (in this case me) and not the teacher is, perhaps, the most abysmal of educational excesses. Clarity may not be sufficient, but it is most certainly necessary.
If you want to conceal your own lack of understanding then it probably helps to obscure and obfuscate your meaning behind a veil of critical theory and postmodernism, or, to put it another way, “pseudo-profound bullshit“.
In The Dark Side of Loon: Explaining the Temptations of Obscurantism, Buekens and Boudry suggest the motivation for obscurantism is to “set up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.” That which Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit” by any other name would smell as sweet:
What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. (p. 14) [My emphasis]
Shakespeare might have talking about the same phenomena when he noted that “Life… is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For Macbeth, it is only the shadow of imminent annihilation that alerts him to the full extent of the bullshit by which he’s surrounded. Then again, Shakespeare was an inveterate bullshitter and he may have just have thought it sounded good.
Most of us, when we’re not entirely sure of our facts, have an understandable tendency to bullshit. It is, perhaps, unfair to label everything which lacks the properties of clarity, precision and economy as ‘bullshit’, but it does seem reasonable to suggest that the more obscure meaning is, the greater the capacity there is for someone to “deceive us about … his enterprise” and convince us that their expertise is greater than we would allow if it was actually clear what they meant.
And in a world where we are likely to encounter ever increasing quantities of bullshit due to the rise of information technology, we need to be increasingly watchful. “Bullshit is not only common; it is popular” and “…using vagueness or ambiguity to mask a lack of meaningfulness is surely common in political rhetoric, marketing, and even academia.” Pennycock et al (2015)
Communicating with clarity, precision and economy not only demonstrates our mastery over content and allows us to better share our understanding with others, it also helps keep us honest.
Further reading: Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century