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Let me guess.
Let me guess why most of you are here in the audience today.
You are here today because you expect to learn something new.
You are here today because you expect to be inspired,
to be entertained, to be enlightened.
Although there were a couple of guys there,
during the coffee break just now, that I saw that looked like
they were here mainly for the coffee breaks, (Chuckles)
and the lovely, young and intelligent ladies
that they hope to meet there.
A perfectly valid reason and expectation, I might add.
But what you certainly don't expect
is that you are going to be lied to,
that you are going to be subjected to a parade
of attractively packaged falsehoods,
you did not come here with the expectation
that the people up here on this stage
don't know what they're talking about,
or worse yet, are deliberately trying to mislead you.
This is, after all, a TED conference, right?
It's not a political party conference,
it's not a sales conference,
it's not a business meeting,
it's not even that perfectly innocuous,
seemingly innocuous, form of escapism called the cinema --
even though we're all sitting here today,
or standing, as the case may be, in a cinema hall,
the grandest movie house in Riga.
The Splendid Palace Cinema.
Splendid Palace...
that's the actual name of this place. Very nice, isn't it?
But before you get too comfortable in your Splendid Palace seats,
a word of caution:
My intention here today is to make you uncomfortable,
my intention is to make you sit up,
and pay attention to what is being said, to how it is being said,
and to what is not being said at all.
For it is my strong conviction
that our democracies today are disintegrating,
precisely because citizens prefer to sit back,
can be lulled into complacency,
prefer to sit back and watch colorful moving pictures,
prefer not to exercise their critical faculties,
prefer not even to develop such critical faculties.
It's just so much easier, isn't it,
to absorb the ideas of that bloviating pundit on TV, isn't it?
I am concerned that we are becoming shallower as a species,
I'm concerned as our vocabularies shrink,
as the word "awesome" becomes a one-size-fits-all term,
good for describing both your breakfast bacon
and the cathedral at Chartres,
our capacity and range of thought shrinks as well --
with disastrous effects for our democracies.
Now, none of this is new, of course.
George Orwell warned us already, back in 1948,
in his famous book: "Nineteen Eighty-Four" --
You knew that, of course, didn't you,
that the title of the book was chosen, the title "Nineteen Eighty-Four",
not because George Orwell thought that 1984
was precisely the year that all these horrible things
were going to happen,
but that the number "1984" was just an inversion
of the actual year in which the book was written: 1948.
You knew that of course, didn't you?
In any case, Orwell warned us not only about Big Brother,
but also introduced a new language, which he called Newspeak;
a language designed not to expand,
but to diminish the range of thought.
As Orwell himself wrote,
"Every year, fewer and fewer words,
and the range of consciousness always a little bit smaller."
The language of Newspeak was a key tool,
used by Big Brother to control the people.
Now, if you lived in this part of the world during Soviet times,
Newspeak was just not a made-up language in a book of fiction,
but it was a daily reality.
You remember those phrases and words?
"The prevailing dialectics of development."
"The irreversible progress of socioeconomic transformations."
"The maximally complete satisfaction of the needs of the people."
Those are real phrases from back then.
Orwell likened these phrases
to the sections of a prefabricated hen house
that you could stack together and tack together in any order,
without any concern for their actual meaning.
But tell me, did Newspeak really disappear with the fall of the Wall?
I don't know about you, but I watched with great amusement,
but also dismay, as former communist party members
who where used to repeating phrases, prefabricated phrases,
like "the prevailing dialectics of development",
once they saw the European Union opportunities approaching,
they switched seamlessly to parroting prefabricated phrases like:
"sustainable development within the framework of social inclusion".
You've heard that one, haven't you?
I believe the European Union played a very, very positive role
in putting Europe back on its feet after World War II,
and I fully support Latvia's membership in the European Union,
but there is something very, very wrong with an organization
whose language has become, or come to resemble,
the prefabricated meaninglessness of Newspeak, or worse.
Orwell wrote some seven decades ago, okay?
And he was reacting to the techno-jargon of his time.
But aren't things even worse today?
You know, the magazine "Forbes", they did a survey a year or two back
and they asked their readers to vote
for the most annoying and useless word or phrase in business.
The response was unprecedented.
And a lot of readers commented too, that this business jargon,
it had come to replace actual thought.
Do you want to know some of the winning responses
or winning words and phrases?
"Pushing the envelope", "leveraging", "core competencies",
"scalable", "sustainable", "boil the ocean"...
Boil the ocean. Do you even know what that means? I don't.
Do you have a phrase or a word that particularly annoys you,
in your line of work?
You know, Newspeak, gibberish, gobbledygook...
It exists in every field, with some fields prone,
particularly prone to infestation.
I have one of those words.
Actually, I have a lot of those words,
but I have one, which particularly annoys me,
and there's a reason for that.
Several years back, I left academia for a bit and went into NGO management.
Academia also is not a jargon-free zone,
it sometimes seems that academics strive to make things deliberately obscure,
and so I was really pleased to be in the concrete, hands-on world
of NGO -- that's Non Governmental Organization --
All right. So, I find myself, one bright day
of having to interview new potential staff members.
Okay, so I ask the usual questions:
What are your strong points? What are your weak points?
And then I also asked: "Well, what do you think
might be the objective of your work here?
And how do you hope to achieve it?"
First candidate: "The objective of my work here?
How do I hope to achieve this objective?
By empowering."
Second candidate: "We need to empower our grantees
in order to achieve our objectives of empowerment."
Third candidate ... well, I won't go on, you get the idea.
But I didn't give up, I pressed on.
And I asked them: "Well, tell me, please, that's all very good,
empowerment is a wonderful thing, but tell me, please,
exactly how are you going to empower this person
and how do you know exactly at what moment in time they are actually empowered?
And how can you be sure that this will actually help you
achieve your goals of empowerment?"
No response. Why?
Because a response would have required actual thinking
and not a prefabricated word.
And so I learned, I learned that there was not only Newspeak,
there was also a thing called NGO-speak, with the same inherent problems.
Now, what are the actual problems, you might ask.
What's the matter with using this jargon?
What harm does it actually do?
To illustrate the great harm that truly can be done
with the use of jargon and meaningless words,
let me give you an example from yet another field.
This time, the field of finance.
Pretend you're the head of one of America's largest banks,
and you're in a meeting, and one of your traders at your bank
presents you with the following proposal -- this is a real quote:
"Go long risk on some belly tranches especially where defaults may realize."
And: "To sell forward spread
and buy protection on the tightening move."
What do you do as the bank president?
I know what I would do, I would say I haven't a clue
as to what this trader is saying, because finance is not my forte
and could he please rephrase his proposal in plain English so I could understand it.
In this particular case, which is a real case,
the proposal was approved,
and JP Morgan suffered one of its largest losses ever
because the trader in question was concealing fraud and incompetence
with this jargon and meaningless words.
There are two main reasons why gibberish and Newspeak-type jargon are used.
Firstly: most people don't resort to words like "empowering" and "deleveraging"
and "delayering" because they don't know how to express themselves well.
They resort to these words, because they often have nothing to say.
Secondly: jargon is used to conceal what is really meant;
it is used as a cover-up.
If someone cannot express their ideas without using the jargon words,
perhaps there's no idea there to be expressed at all.
When you feel insecure about your grasp of the subject,
jargon words are a useful crutch.
When you are afraid of speaking unpleasant truths,
jargon's a tranquilizer.
"A negative patient outcome" ...
that sounds so much more soothing than: "He died." Right?
When you want to make it clear that you belong to an exclusive group,
that you are not an outsider, using the common lingo is a must.
When you don't want to make the effort to think,
-- forget about the box -- just think,
jargon words and lazy language are a very useful substitute.
Next time you hear somebody prattling on about "capacity building",
or "sustainable collective impact" or "robust action initiatives",
ask them what they're talking about.
Press them for a definition.
And I bet you anything they can't provide it.
Orwell warned against these duck-speakers -- he called them duck-speakers.
He warned against people for whom speech originates in the larynx,
without involving the higher brain centers at all.
Many of you here in this audience know of someone in your family
that was deported to the Gulag
or sent to the Nazi camps, as the case may be?
Elegant dress and soft hands,
that put you at your peril for the class-conscious Soviets.
But the deadliest liability for both the Soviet and the Nazi regimes
was evidence of civilized articulacy --
in any language. Civilized articulacy in any language.
Evidence of the ability to think for yourself,
and to express yourself in a language free of the prevailing jargon.
Be that as it may, you know, the Ancient Greeks,
they knew that democracy would be destroyed
not by totalitarianism or the oligarchs,
but it would be destroyed by a perverted form of itself.
Democracy evolved along with the culture of the written word,
and it is a creation of that culture.
Today's image-based culture addresses hidden instinctual hungers,
not the intellect.
And the language used today is but a pale reflection
of that used by the Athenians,
let alone that used by Abe Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.
Democracies deteriorate.
Slovenly language and slovenly thought both corrode the republic.
A statesman known for his eloquence, Vaclav Havel,
spoke of his concern about the rise of demagoguery,
and of how susceptible young democracies especially
are to the rise of populism.
He said: "All my life, I've criticized the way of life made up of platitudes.
I've analyzed the language of platitudes,
and now I find myself facing the professional temptation
to resort to platitudes."
Ha! This is Vaclav Havel speaking.
What are we to say about the others,
if one of the most eloquent statesmen ever
feels that he has to resort to platitudes.
The dumbing down of complex ideas for mass consumption,
this is one danger for democracy.
The willful obscurement of simple truths
with elaborate verbal constructions, that's another.
And these two don't contradict each other.
Indeed, both are ways in which to hide what you really mean,
or to hide your lack of meaning.
Be on guard against both.
Pay attention when you don't understand. It may very well not be your fault.
Demand definitions and explanations and don't be intimidated by the jargon.
Consider it rather that the person using this jargon
is insecure, arrogant,
doesn't know what they're talking about, or has something to hide.
Put an effort into using clear language, devoid of jargon.
Your thinking will be clearer too.
And our democracies will be the better for it.
And never, ever, assume ...
that the person speaking up on this stage, or any other stage,
is automatically a "thought leader",
even though the program says they are.
"Thought leader"; that's another one of those jargon phrases
that I have a certain aversion to. Why?
Because if those up here are "thought leaders",
that means that those out there, that is you,
are "thought followers". Right?
"Thought followers" ...
that has a nice Orwellian ring to it, doesn't it?
Is that what your badges say? "Thought follower"?
I hope not.
I prefer to think of you as curious individuals,
as independent thinkers,
individuals who will not engage in duck-speaking
and who recognize a platitude for what it is.
Individuals who will make up their own minds,
whether they agree with something or they don't agree with it at all;
or even whether it's worth agreeing with.
I prefer to think that you are individuals,
who will not follow leaders blindly,
no matter how attractive...
how... beautiful ...
and how full of glib promises they may be.
That is what I would like to believe.
But who knows,
perhaps that's a form of delusion as well.
Thank you very much.
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【TEDx】The language of delusion: Vita Matiss at TEDxRiga 2013

4008 Folder Collection
阿多賓 published on April 24, 2014
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