Posts Tagged ‘communication’

George Orwell’s legacy includes dozens of memorable phrases. They include “Big Brother is watching you,” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” and “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” all of which are more chilling for seeming all too probable. But if anything, he is even better known for the words he coined, like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” However, one Orwellian coining that I’ve always wished had become a part of English is “duckspeak.”

According to Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “duckspeak” means superficially different things depending to whom it is applied. When used of a speaker who follows the current orthodoxy, it is a word of approval. However, when applied to an enemy, it’s an insult;.

In its vividness, the word reminds me of some the great invective of the eighteenth century, including “toady,” “bootlicker” and “lickspittle.” And now I think, the eighteenth century developed a near-synonym for duckspeak, too – “cant.”

Both cant and duckspeak refer to a bland and unthinking expression of conventional ideas, often with enthusiasm and stubbornness. The difference is that cant was usually applied to statements that the speaker disagreed with. Duckspeak retains that application, but becomes a compliment when you agree with the statement, because speaking in cliches implies an unthinking loyalty. The implication is that a person who is a duckspeaker is unlikely to be disloyal, because they have no original thoughts.

Essentially, duckspeakers are those who break every rule for clear expression that George Orwell summarized in “Politics and the English Language.” They don’t use short, effective words; they use long, vague ones that obscure their meaning. They frown on original thought, and prefer instead to string cliches together into an approximation of meaning.

Rather than communication, their goals are inter-personal. They may hope that a flow of empty phrases will silence the opposition and impress bystanders into a silent admiration of their eloquence. However, their main purpose – quite unconsciously – is to show themselves orthodox followers of whatever line of thinking they happen to support.

The idea that speech or writing might be used to get things done is foreign to their actions, although when you point out the fact, they are likely to stare at you and wonder why you are stating the obvious – thereby proving that they are also engaged in what Orwell termed “doublethink,” the holding of two completely contradictory ideas at the same time.

Examples of duckspeak are everywhere. You might say that it is the dialect of modern industrial culture. But what got me thinking about duckspeak was the incident at PyCon that people call Donglegate. Hearing two men behind her joking about big dongles, Adria Richards posted a picture of them on Twitter to shame them, and complained to the conference organizers, who reprimanded the men. Richards later blogged about the incident with what can only be called a triumphant tone, suggesting she had struck a blow for women in technology. Soon after, others started giving their opinion of what happened. Richards and one of the jokers lost their jobs, and anti-feminists sent her death and rape threats.

Anybody with a claim to impartiality might have seen these events as evidence that feminism has come to high-tech, and that exactly how it will fit into that sub-culture needs to be discussed. However, with few exceptions, people on both sides could only respond with duckspeak.

The anti-feminists attacked Richards for the joker’s loss of his job, while openly rejoicing when she lost hers. They labeled her a stereotypical feminist – dictatorial, humorless, and erratic – and suggested that she deserved what happened to her. Rather than trying to analyze the memes that might have caused Donglegate, they used it as an excuse for the same old invective, ignoring the fact that many things need to change.

But to my dismay, the feminists – the women and men I support – responded as badly.. They excused Richards’ actions on the grounds that talking to the jokers one-on- one might be difficult for a woman, ignoring the fact Richards is articulate and capable. They petitioned for Richards’ employer to rehire her, while showing little sympathy for the fired joker, suggesting that he deserved what happened to him. They painted her as the victim of racism and misogyny (which she was), but made little mention of her arrogance and carelessness.

In other words, all nuance was lost in the discussion, and with it any hope for serious discussion. Both sides were too busy proving their orthodoxy to manage anything constructive.

Aside from a possible emotional catharsis, all that came out of the affair was the tendency of some anti-feminists to quote their opponents in squeaky voices. To a reader of Orwell like me, they seemed to have independently re-invented duckspeak in the most literal sense. But of course, what they never noticed is their verbal manifestos could have been lampooned in exactly the same. way.

Most people didn’t even get that much from the affair. We are all so used to public discussion degenerating in this way that most of us forget that it could be conducted in any other way.

That’s probably why duckspeak, like cant before it, has become obsolete. You don’t need a word for the norm. It’s just how people behave.

Still, watching episodes like Donglegate unfold, I conclude that a revival at least of duckspeak, with its ambiguous meanings, would be a useful way to improve public thought. Watching the anti-feminists and feminists demonstrate their separate orthodoxies, I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Animal Farm, in which humans and pigs are mingling, and the watching animals are having an increasingly hard time telling the two apart.

That’s where duckspeak leads. And if, by any chance I’m guilty of it here, then all I can say is – quack to you, too.

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Several times in the last few months, I’ve closed discussion on one of my blogs. Each time, some people have howled in outrage. Their anger makes them nearly inarticulate, but their position is apparently that I have no right to stop discussion. I am an enemy of free speech, they proclaim, a censor and cowardly, and downright evil as well.

I don’t see that, myself.

For one thing, free speech is not an absolute right, even if you believe that it should be. It is limited by laws against libel, hate-crimes, and terrorism, among others. Nor can you invoke free speech as a defense against mischief.

Admittedly, violations of these laws appear dozens of time each day on the Internet, and most of them are not prosecuted unless someone complains. Even in 2010, the Internet retains more of a frontier unruliness than other forms of media. But the point is that idea that free speech is unlimited is disproved with a moment’s thought.

Moreover, in each of these cases, some of these limits seemed to apply. Whether they actually would have been grounds for legal actions, I can’t say, of course. However, I think that erring on the side of caution is reasonable, especially since at least one determined commenter seems to have been required to close down his own blog.

At any rate, I have no desire to be involved, however indirectly, in a court action. And, in the case of one blog, I would be irresponsible if I exposed the company that owns the site to litigation. These motivations are not a matter of courage so much as caution. If I am going to be dragged into a legal action, it is going to be for something worth fighting for, and not because I provided a forum for the indiscreet and feckless.

However, my strongest motivation was that I simply lacked the time to either police my blog every half hour or to enter into discussions that were unfolding in which, so far as I can see, there was little to distinguish one set of claims from another.

I have been writing about free and open source software for five years now, and I have gained a limited amount of recognition. That recognition is not on the scale of a Linus Torvalds’ or a Richard Stallmans’, but it does mean that I get a lot of email and other contacts – so much that I can only answer some of it if I hope to get any writing done. Unless I am contacted by a friend or an unusually interesting stranger, I generally try to limit an exchange to a couple of communications.

I don’t always follow this rule strictly, but when someone is repetitive, abusive, and fails to address what I have to say, I am sure to apply it. By nature, I am easy-going and love to talk, but trying to hold a discussion with such people leaves a deadening feeling of futility. They are not going to sway me by bludgeoning tactics, and all too clearly, I am not going to convince them in a discussion. So why should I waste my time? A couple of exchanges is enough for them to have a say, and for me to know the type of people with whom I am dealing.

In other words, I choose to focus on the people who are interesting to have in a discussion, and/or can teach me something. So far as I’m concerned, declining to spend much time on the obsessive is not censorship, any more than refusing to publish bad writers in an anthology you are editing is censorship. It’s selection, plain and simple. i am hardly the only person I know who has to resort to this kind of selection in order to do what’s important to them, either.

Nor can I navigate the rights and wrongs of the feud that, in a couple of cases, is the reason for me shutting down comments. Both sides accuse the other of criminal behavior, and both sides claim to present evidence. However, all I can tell for sure is that I don’t want to be involved. Being hectored, abused, and threatened two or three times a day makes me even less likely to want to get involved; attempts to intimidate only make me stubborn, and, when people act like spammers, I treat them like spammers.

At any rate, to talk about censorship on the Internet is more of a rhetorical flourish than a reference to reality. If I refuse to post someone’s comments, that’s two out of – what? Several billion sites? If a commenter can’t find a place to publish what I won’t, they aren’t trying.

Under all these circumstances, you’ll excuse me if I find myself unmoved by the accusations when I close comments. I don’t do so quickly or easily, because I value freedom of expression myself. But I do so to create a space to work, and so I can focus on what’s important.

The peace of mind that results tells me, more than anything else, that I am doing the right thing.

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“Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
– The Animals

Every few years, I come across someone who can’t understand me. I don’t mean a man or a woman who thinks so differently from me that they can’t grasp my motivations or the logical progression of my thoughts; this kind of person, I could joke with some seriousness, I meet several times a week. I mean someone who, no matter how slowly I speak, how loudly I project or how clearly I pronounce my words cannot comprehend the literal sense of my words. Inevitably, the result is mutual panic and frustration.

Exactly why a small handful of people cannot comprehend me is a mystery to me (after all, I can hardly ask them). My first inclination is to blame myself. After all, when I was in the first grade, I did take speech therapy. But that was long ago. If anything, speech therapy left me with a tendency to speak precisely and carefully that some people mistake for a British accent.

Similarly, while some people claim that I have a slight secondhand Yorkshire accent I picked up from my father, it’s a mild one (if it exists). Anyway, my vowels are definitely Canadian (for instance, coming from me, “hill” and “hell” sound the same, and so do “don” and “dawn”), so by all reasoning, I shouldn’t be anywhere close to unintelligible. I do speak quickly, but so do many western Canadians, and most of them don’t seem to have the same trouble that I occasionally bump into.

So, as much as the idea goes against my inclinations, I suspect that the problem is usually with those with whom I am unable to communicate. Usually, they are either untraveled Americans, or ESL students who are less than fluent in English. Either way, they are usually in their early twenties.

These common traits suggest that my uncomprehending listeners may lack experience with many accents. Their behavior reinforces this suggestion: always, they are impatient, and regard me as if I am mentally subnormal, giving up attempts to communicate long before I do. Yet I suspect that this is only half the explanation.

In my own case, when I’ve had trouble following thick accents like Glaswegian or Jamaican, the reason has been that I have taken a few moments to catch the rhythm of the speech – how it shifts to ask a question, or asks for a response, for example. Could my unusual precision produce an unintelligible rhythm for some people?

But that only shifts the question back one step. Faced with an accent with a strange rhythm, I usually find that within a few minutes, I can understand the speaker so long as I concentrate. But, when someone can’t understand me, they never gradually start to comprehend me. They stay baffled by me forever.

Could another common element be that these people are tone deaf, at least when it comes to accents? That they cannot catch that subtle rhythm that lets you understand a train of thought and, if necessary, fill in the blanks? So far, that is the best guess that I have come up with.

Yet, if I am right, the explanation is little comfort. It does nothing to solve the problem. Speaking without being understood by your audience is a private hell for a writer and ex-teacher, and I happen to be both. So I stand there, growing more frantic, receiving no help from the other person, until they either retreat from my obvious frustration or enlist the aid of someone else.

Frankly, I’ve had more success carrying on conversations with my high school French, and I neither understand why nor know when another of these encounters is going to occur.

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