Have you read recently one of those warning sheets from the pharmacy on the terrible things that will happen to you if you take the pill you just bought? They are exceedingly grim, as you know. Who’s dreaming up this language, this strategy of communication? You harbor some lurking doubt whether your doctor knows about all of these awful consequences.
Or did you check off that conspicuous little agreement box attached to something you ordered online? You know, the one where you agree to the terms you didn’t have time to read? Well, you did check the box, of course, or you were not able proceed with your order. But did you really read the thing? Who created these agreements? And for what purpose? Surely it’s the liability thing again, but who writes these little masterpieces of nonsense?
Or how about your latest IRS tax return, the whole thing really, but maybe especially the section on figuring your alternative minimum tax? Now, there’s an amazing invention by our government? How can people think up these things? Who spends their time writing them? How can they imagine this language actually communicates anything meaningful?
Or when you last took out a mortgage, financing or refinancing your home, did you actually read all of those pages you signed? Really? The last stack of such papers my wife and I signed sat six inches high on our dining room table. I grew up believing my signature really meant something. I grew up believing you were supposed to read before signing. But no one could possible read all of these documents before signing. I feel forced into some kind of dishonesty.
Or for those who are in the “retirement” phase of life, how about those helpful descriptions about calculating your Medicare Part D prescription plan? In my working life I have read and executed all kinds of sophisticated documents, but I swear, I really don’t have a clue what Part D is talking about most of the time. I worry for those who are disabled or disadvantaged trying to sort out the whole amazing labyrinth of Medicare Part D, or any other part of Medicare for that matter.
“How did we get into this mess?,” Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn asked recently in The Wall Street Journal. “Lawyers and technologists,” they say, “are the taproots of complexity. Government regulators make things worse with misguided attempts to require ‘disclosure.’ Predatory companies are only too happy to hide behind the cloak of complexity.”
Yes, I get all of that, but still. Surely we are all complicit in shaping a society where the language we use is too often disconnected from reasonable meaning. That’s a dangerous moment for any society. There is something false in all of this. Something untrue. No society can continue to thrive when language loses its purpose and meaning. Broken trust begins to seep in. Cynicism grows. Our humor becomes dark.
A society that separates its language from meaning is destined to implode, decline, disintegrate.
How in the world can I stage a revolt against all of this complexity gone mad? How do we demand language that speaks simply, with some measure of common sense? Why do we have to settle for a language that is sterile and ugly and impenetrable? This is dead language. It precipitates a dead society. It creates dishonesty. This language is polluting the landscape of human connection.
And here’s another thought: Is it too naïve to ask for a language that is beautiful? Is it possible to require students to be exposed to language that is beautiful, a language that may set a standard later on? Or have we given up on that grand aspiration of all decent societies?
Well, I’m in a subversive mood. I’m in a mood to simplify. I’m in a mood to make something beautiful again with language. Something is broken here. Something needs to be said—but, then, is there anyone out there who will answer the phone?