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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The New Illiteracy -- Obfuscation -- Hinders Progress | Counter It with Plain Language

Though Richard Steiner calls it a "new illiteracy" in this column, he's right on when he defines obfuscation and the essential actions to fight it. He writes:
[O]bfuscation is the intentional misuse of language in order to avoid communication, to conceal or distract from substance or meaning. This rhetorical tool allows a speaker or writer to feign concern for an issue, while remaining vague, confusing, opaque, and ambiguous.
I like his point that efforts to spread this new form of illiteracy are really promoting "an anti-literacy of sorts, where language is used to avoid communication," an effort that's not new in our culture. He writes:
Just as malnutrition can result from too little food (hunger) or too much food (obesity), illiteracy can likewise result from either the under use, or over use, of language. Each year, thousands of speeches, articles, webpages, reports, conferences, and workshops discuss important issues, but mostly as pretense and subterfuge to mask the lack of progress on these very same issues.
Fortunately, Steiner notes, organizations in the United States and around the world are working to counter obfuscation:
At this point in human history, we need clear, honest discussion of issues -- environmental, economic, and social. And this is the focus of an emerging global "plain language movement", with organizations now in the UK, U.S., Australia, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, France, Finland, and Belgium. There is the Plain Language Association International, Clarity International, and the Center for Plain Language, whose motto is: "If it doesn't makes sense, demand to understand."
And he emphasizes that we must go beyond revealing, questioning and explaining the language used by obfuscators:
In discussions about real-world problems, we should demand real-world answers, with specifics, commitments, and timelines. We should pay closer attention to the actions (and budgets) of industry and government, rather than their words. We should demand that public officials say what they mean, and mean what they say. If we can't talk honestly and clearly about our problems, we can't solve them.
For more information on plain language, aka plain English, visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. It describes seven steps on "How to write clearly to meet the needs of your readers--and your needs too!"_______
Steiner's column is featured today, July 10, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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