Have you ever noticed a person disappear while they are talking to you?
You enter the school office in the morning; your child has a massive splinter. Ask the ladies behind the desk for tweezers. You expect them to try to get the splinter out before the register; give the lamb some sympathy. But you haven’t read the risk assessment for splinters.
The lady behind the desk – normally pleasant and helpful – leans back in her office chair away from the glass; doesn’t want to see the sharp bit of dirty wood lodged in your daughter’s finger.
‘School tweezers are not sterilised therefore we can’t allow you to use them I’m afraid.’
‘But it hurts.’
‘I’m afraid we are not permitted to use non-sterile equipment because of the risk of infection involved. If you like I can fetch the designated first-aider on the team, but she would say the same thing. ‘
‘Can I use the school tweezers please?’
‘I’m afraid our policy is not to hand out non-sterilised equipment. Why don’t you use your teeth’
‘The human mouth is full of bacteria.’
‘We are not allowed to hand out non-sterilised equipment.’
‘For goodness sake!’
I try to make it a joke, meet the eyes of the other parents and staff. Out of seven people, no one looks back at me. The lady’s tone is beginning to change: I am one of those difficult parents.
I know it’s just a splinter, but the feeling of a person abandoning their sympathy and common sense, relying on the language of PowerPoint, online training and statutory documents agitates me.
It happens a lot. I must have done it myself on the odd parent’s evening. The queue of parents is long. One particular person is asking difficult questions about what the assessments are testing them for; how exactly their child can move up to the top set; why they didn’t get an ‘A’. I might have reeled off the phrases thrown around in department meetings about ‘progress targets’, ‘interventions’ and ‘value added’ without giving real thought to the worried father or mother in front of me, their particular child. I can’t remember anything specific, but why would I? Spouting jargon, not bothering to think, is easily forgotten.
What about if I worked in a job centre? Would I think about every single person in front of me, respond honestly to other human beings? (Or ‘queries from customers’ as the jargon would have it.)
Would I truly think about the people in front of me if I happened to be a nurse, GP, police officer, prison guard? Or would I hide behind jargon?
George Orwell described the phenomena in Politics and The English Language (1946):
“..one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”
And again in 1984:
“..his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. What was slightly horrible was that from the stream of sound that poured out of his mouth, it was almost impossible to distinguish a single word.”
Orwell says we hide behind official language; we also allow it to infect our thoughts, until we become more like machines working than people responding. A child with a splinter becomes a potential risk for which the organisation is not insured; mass murder, torture and incarceration become a purge.
People naturally hate jargon. That’s why comedy so often points out the absurdity of official language – Yes Minister, The Thick of It, The Office, The Britass Empire. You can think of more. A teacher I once worked with, who took it upon himself every year to organise interesting school trips, changed every use on the shared risk assessment form of the word ‘public’ to ‘pubic’; waited to see if anyone spotted it, then gave up and told other members of staff about his gag – risking getting into trouble for the satisfaction of laughing at the stupid convoluted language we all did our best to ignore.
Jargon is offensive. Relying on jargon is the first step towards losing yourself in an ideology. And, with an ideology, as Solzhenitsyn explains, a person can do terrible things:
“Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.”
The Gulgag Archipelago (1973)
Cloaking your thoughts and actions in jargon allows you to get away with behaviour you’d rather not name; speaking and thinking in jargon confuses your ability to think for yourself. Jargon, therefore, leads to ideology. Justified by an ideology, a person could become a terror.
So I think it’s important to look carefully at splinters, and call them what they are.