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The Destruction of Writing

Here's a message from the Consilium of Europa -- that's what it's actually called -- on the Cyprus crisis.  Imagine for a moment that we are communications intelligence specialists tasked with forming some estimate of the people who composed it. We might begin by noting the message in its linguistic conventions is characteristic of what might be called EU-Speak.

EU-Speak contains words rarely if ever encountered in ordinary English speech; words like 'progressivity'.   It  is larded with stock phrases that say in ten words what people normally convey in one. Why is it written this way?

Statement by the Eurogroup President on Cyprus

The Eurogroup held a teleconference this evening to take stock of the situation in Cyprus.

I recall that the political agreement reached on 16 March on the cornerstones of the adjustment programme and the financing envelope for Cyprus reflects the consensus reached by the Cypriot government with the Eurogroup. The implementation of the reform measures included in the draft programme is the best guarantee for a more prosperous future for Cyprus and its citizens, through a viable financial sector, sound public finances and sustainable economic growth.

I reiterate that the stability levy on deposits is a one-off measure. This measure will  -- together with the international financial support -- be used to restore the viability of the Cypriot banking system and hence, safeguard financial stability in Cyprus. In the absence of this measure, Cyprus would have faced scenarios that would have left deposit holders significantly worse off.

The Eurogroup continues to be of the view that small l depositors should be treated differently from large depositors and reaffirms the importance of fully guaranteeing deposits below EUR 100.000. The Cypriot authorities will introduce more progressivity in the one-off levy compared to what was agreed on 16 March, provided that it continues yielding the targeted reduction of the financing envelope and, hence, not impact the overall amount of financial assistance up to EUR 10bn.

The Eurogroup takes note of the authorities' decision to declare a temporary bank holiday in Cyprus on 19-20 March 2013 to safeguard the stability of the financial sector, and urges a swift decision by the Cypriot authorities and parliament to rapidly implement the agreed measures.

The euro area Member States stand ready to assist Cyprus in its reform efforts on the basis of the agreed adjustment programme.

EU-speak is a subdialect of a language one might call International Bureaucratese. Every UN document is written in IB. For example, there is the 2012 Global Partnership in Develpment Report, Making Rhetoric a Reality, a title curious in itself. But its contents are almost impossible to comprehend. A random paragraph from the report illustrates this:

The waning of support for the global partnership for development may be understandable in the context of a protracted economic and financial crisis. But the global partnership for development should be seen as a "positive-sum game". There is positive feedback when the economies of development partner countries achieve robust growth and become dynamic markets for world trade and investment. Unsustainable pressures on the Earth’s natural limits are a further reason why the global partnership should be seen as an opportunity to yield positive-sum outcomes. Massive investments are needed for climate change mitigation and adaptation and other dimensions of environmental protection with global ramifications. Such investment will come about only through col lective action -- nationally, of course, but also, and foremost, internationally. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) committed itself in this regard to strengthening international cooperation to address challenges related to sustainable development for all. The international community cannot afford not to honour those commitments. But how credible can that agenda be if we have not delivered on previous commitments to achieve the MDGs? It will be credible only if the promises made are indeed fulfilled and rhetoric becomes reality.

Say what?

Although slightly different from EU-speak, IB has the same signature: the same obscure word usage and the infestation of stock phrases almost devoid of actual meaning.

As comm analysts we could take the approach that it is comprehensible to those who know the language. But there is a more interesting possibility.  It deliberately contains little, if any, meaning at all.

Readers may remember Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. "In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies" with the express intention of demonstrating that a submission in intentional gibberish would be greeted with rave reviews.

The article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", published in the Social Text Spring/Summer 1996 "Science Wars" issue, proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On its date of publication (May 1996), Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as "a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics"

He sent them random text and to his surprise it was well received. Sokal was roundly criticized for being "dishonest". But he had singularly demonstrated that nobody actually knew what the hoax article said. In fact it said nothing.  But amazingly, every reader pretended to his own idea what it said so that if you had asked 100 people to summarize it, one might have received 100 completely different answers in earnest.

Sokal's experiment illuminates both EU-speak and International Bureaucratese. Perhaps for all their length and verbosity, these languages are designed to communicate the minimum possible information. What it can say will often be contradictory, ambiguous or plain nonsense. Yet this the language in which the transnational elite prefers to communicate. Why?

Because linguistic poverty is a feature, not a bug.

One is tempted to dismiss EU-speak as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But suppose its real purpose is to mean anything you want it to mean on any occasion. To act as a  linguistic blank canvas whose complete absence of inherent meaning makes it possible to lie with impunity, since one can alter the meaning of declarations and twist it into any shape required.

Perhaps the two greatest commentators on the corruption of language were George Orwell and Jesus Christ. Orwell's theory of Newspeak is well known. But Christ had something interesting to say too about lies. He said in the famous John 8 passage, that lies were the "native language of the devil."

Jesus said to them ... "why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil ... for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!"

Orwell's concept is remarkably similar. His fictional Newspeak  is actually designed to make it 'impossible to understand exactly what the statement means, since all concepts and words that can be used to argue against Big Brother would be eradicated from the language.'

By impoverishing language, Orwell argued, it would be possible to 'prevent thinking'. Orwell's conclusion is remarkably identical to Christ's own zinger in John 8. If you could think aright, "then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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