Language & How We Are Losing Our Minds

Cut-and-paste thinking in a word-processed world

If you’ve said you’re about to action something, what do you really mean? You’ve just replaced a verb with a noun. But which verb? You don’t say. Are you going to do it yourself? Ask someone else to do it? And what, precisely, will the action be?

Replacing verbs with nouns is only one way in which the slippage occurs. The passive is another. ‘Lessons will be learned.’ Who will learn the lessons? The active verb makes it clear who the subject is: we know who will learn their lesson. Like obliterating the parts of speech, exalting the passive verb destroys accountability.

By the time we get to ‘taking the learnings’, we are a long way from giving anyone an incentive to improve. However, there is another factor at work in that one. The ‘learnings’ are the items in the column marked ‘learning’. The objective was to learn from our experiences, which is how the things in that column became ‘learnings’. Our objective, meanwhile, became having a list of ‘learnings’ to present to the supervisor. The actual lessons were of secondary importance.

There are few dystopian novels that do not feature the collapse of language. A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker were written in new speech. 1984 had NewSpeak. In The Every, deliberate misspelling was ‘just one of the unfortunate Everyisms that diminished the dignity of the species and shamed whoever had to type it’ (p.408). Anthony Burgess, Russell Hoban, George Orwell and Dave Eggers have all picked up on language-mangling. It is a feature of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

The motives for mangling our words may have been innocent, and even noble. Spelling a word according to choice or switching the parts of speech — ‘I’ for ‘me’, or ‘Sinkler’ for ‘Sinclair’ — may have been an act of resistance against an oppressor’s way to talk, or write. Alternatively, no harm may have been meant by deliberately wrecking a word’s spelling to make a brand stand out. Nevertheless, as Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange remind their readers, there has to be some common language if we are to work our way to an understanding of the common good.

In particular that habit of ‘taking the learnings’ and ‘actioning’ things has been a way to enforce procedural legitimacy. Seeing the process through has been more important than thinking clearly, taking things to heart, using initiative or practising discernment. The protocol is always the right thing to do, even when it is the wrong thing to do. Really, without wishing to trivialise the event in any way, this is the bureaucratic apology of an Eichmann. This is how tyranny raddles a constitution like an ivy that one day pulls the wall down.

What it also encourages is cut-and-paste thinking. How easy it is to cut and to paste a passage of text. Content creators insert entire chunks of words without changing the punctuation, point size or font. The words are simply stuck next to other words, like those series of nouns that should have been verbs, and people are left to guess at the meaning. But the direst effect is to lull both writer and reader to sleep. So long as the words have been pasted in the column, it really will not matter what they mean.

It will matter, though. In a court room, such as the court of public opinion, in which the accused cannot explain himself or could not expect to be understood, in which the offences are vaguely phrased but wide-ranging, and in which everyone knows what opinion they plan to paste in even if they can’t remember where they cut it from, no one will change their minds or bring other minds round — and the force of the numbers against you will be all that decides things.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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