Damned by doublespeak

From mission statements, to political revelations, nothing is what it seems.

Many will have been on the receiving end of ‘Doublespeak’ (the warping, distortion switching or changing of words to make negative unpleasant, tricky or situations, not sound quite as awful). Those in education will be particular familiar with doublespeak’s demon offspring, jargon.

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In 1974, time of purple Datsun Cherries and flared loons, my recently re-discovered school report cards are peppered with imaginative jargon, or doublespeak terms such as Stephen is “somewhat lively” (disruptive), “independent” (selfish), “spirited” (ill behaved), “doesn’t enjoy maths” (has a life), “energetic at sport” (hopelessly uncoordinated), “has a special aptitude for art” (can just about hold a pencil or brush), “enjoys listening to music” (that’s all he’ll do), “a delight” (isn’t ever going to amount to much), “making headway with reading” (slow and stupid) — welcome to Doublespeak old and new!

The concept of ‘Doublespeak’ can be traced George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although not used in the book, the term Doublespeak draws its lineage from the idea of Doublethink; the act of ordinary people simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in certain contexts. 1984 worryingly shows people accepting Doublethink through both peer pressure, and a desire to ‘fit in’, or gain status (with those in power). In the novel, for someone to recognise, let alone mention, any contradiction to the official Doublespeak line was akin to blasphemy, and could subject that person, at best to the social disapproval of those doubly speaking, and at worse immediate execution.

Life in the ‘anything-goes’ 21st century makes full use of Doublespeak, (fresh frozen, a person of interest, banks have non-performing assets). I’ve just upcycled some greenhouse glass (given my old junk away), and watched a documentary about enhanced interrogation (torture) of terrorist suspects, many of my students need their academic skills brightening (need to work harder) Our leaders do their best too. Here is former US President George Bush (a class double speak act!):

I reminded [the soldiers] and their families that the war in Iraq is really about peace.
— President George W. Bush, April 2003

In the education world, we still seem blighted (obsessed) by Doublespeak (Jargon) and now find it warping day-to-day reality, in fact, creating a hyper-reality. For example, in Higher Education the doublespeak debate has raged for years — “too many professors seem to think that using unwieldy language makes them seem particularly clever,” says one professor, who declined to be named. “The attitude seems to be that if they make it too easy to understand, it somehow diminishes their own standing and intellect. That’s ridiculous, of course. But it is one very strong train of thought”.

At the same time, popular academics who become television or newspaper stars because they use accessible language to present their knowledge — think historian Simon Schama, physicist Brian Cox, and Robert Winston — are often derided by those who have never had such commercial success.

Fundamentally,the real debate needs shifting to how the strife for commercial success among universities, has increased the use of doublespeak,to the point it has become a joke. Once, the university was conceived of as a refuge from market values, in its tolerance of risk and failure, but they now reward only entrepreneurial, self-governing and competitive subjects, who are happy to function within the limits and discourse set for them by the managerial project.

A culture of the ‘corporate boast’ (jargon goes head-to-head with other jargon) is adopted by ‘managers’ with markets, who identify difficultly in achieving targets (pinch points) and is staged via the university mission statement. (Doublespeak).

Evidence taken from analysis of all the mission statements in UK universities, shows neoliberal anxieties. Some examples illustrate my point. Benchmarks (we’re the only one who do this); performance indicators (tests); company spin-outs (making money from university research ideas). Universities are businesses, motors for economic development and they pay those at the top more.

‘Why do they do it?’ Staff know these (hyper-reality) goals are unachievable, and recognise the unreality but all understood they were required to act as if they were unproblematic. We have learned to defer to what economist Paul Krugman calls Zombie ideas “policy ideas that keep being killed by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentlessly forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda”.

By the way, the United Nations’ (UN) International Literacy Day annually falls on the 8th September to raise people’s awareness of, and concern for literacy issues in the world. Please put it into your diary!

Steve Woods is an associate lecturer teaching Sociology at The Open University. This article was previously published in July 2014 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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