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Language should communicate, not manipulate

This originally appeared in The Globe and Mail

Here are two sentences that contain bad language: After consultation, our stakeholders are demanding that we weaponize our innovations to ensure real outcomes. It’s how we disrupt the status quo, enabling us to better serve our clients.

In all likelihood, the offending terms are easy to spot. Consultation, stakeholders, weaponize, innovation, outcomes, disruption, status quo, clients: These words are ubiquitous and, seemingly, conveyors of meaning. They are state-of-the-art, but only if the art is not communicating.

Wars over language, and through language, have come to shape our age. Every day offers fresh battles, fought on various platforms by various factions and individuals. Nearly everyone appears to be involved in these skirmishes, starting with the President of the United States on Twitter. No one is following any rules, never mind consulting any dictionaries.

Not long ago, most bad language came courtesy of government propaganda or advertising-agency blandishments. Now the vocabularies of the consulting world and academia, in particular, are erecting their own screens and barriers.

For brevity, let’s outline three broad categories of screens – call them “lazy words,” “obfuscating words” or “malicious words” – and provide examples of each. A couple of disclaimers. First, given the overall noise levels most of us live with – much of the volume beyond our control – language oversaturation is a huge problem. A term like disruption went from sharp and interesting to flabby and cynical in the space of a decade, maybe less. It once connoted something dynamic and optimistic, serving as challenge to long-standing conventions. Now it primarily signals someone’s wish to signal something about themselves.

Second, terms can migrate between categories depending on who uses them, and why, and how. Our lazy word may be closer to obfuscating to someone else. Words we consider malicious could be ascribed as merely lazy. For example, assigning dark intent to the term consultation might come as a surprise, although we think we are justified. You might even disregard this exercise altogether, dismissing such language as simply the business of doing business today.

But you should probably be a little skeptical. A stakeholder now means everyone who might be implicated or interested or have a mere tangential stake in a project. When defined that lazily, it absolves all parties of any direct responsibility.

Innovation used to refer to new, more effective methods for solving old problems. It has been drained of meaning, and is no more than a perfunctory label aimed at grabbing attention.

As a term of malicious intent, to weaponize likely requires no defence. It is an obscene term for any use other than a description of something created to kill. Consultation is more open to dispute. Most, we suspect, would assign the term no deeper a hole than lazy, for its overuse, or perhaps obfuscating, for how it can substitute for a plan.

But for many Canadians, most notably Indigenous peoples, a consultation may now have lost so much credibility or meaning that it rings of something like its opposite: a process embarked upon to ensure nothing happens, over and over, and even to dishonour and disempower the group being consulted, also over and over. The term should be approached with caution in 2018.

Calling out such lazy, obfuscating and malicious words is more than an exercise. It is a good mental exertion: good for your mind, and for the English language. It is also to push back against manipulation and distortion, and indirectly reassert first principles – that language is meant to communicate, and to connect.

The 6 Degrees Dictionary, a new project of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, offers a user’s guide to inclusion. Read the 6 Degrees Dictionary.