Double Speak: Questioning the Answer
Questions on human nature do not come with answer-keys like on multiple-choice exams where a single question corresponds with a single, finite and non-negotiable answer. The examination of humanity is diverse and requires a multitude of questions to be asked in order to justly reach a single answer. William Lutz, in his paper “The World of Double Speak” tells of the power imbalance created within each culture’s words and statements. Alan Parington contextualizes this phenomenon in his case study of press briefings by the White House during the Clinton and later Bush administration. Both are correct in outlining the dangers of double speak, however the damages of double speak can be reduced by being active and critical thinkers.
Double speak is best known as language deliberately used to distort the true meaning in the favour of a person or group. Lutz tells of one of the most damaging versions of double speak as being jargon, where members of a special group use very specific terminology knowing that outsiders do not understand (350). Lawyers are often accused most of using jargon to sway jury votes when they use complicated and uncommon language such as referring to theft as larceny in the hopes that the jury will overlook any words they are unfamiliar with . The main issue with this form of jargon is that select groups in society are then excluded from the broader conversation and are thus denied the chance to refute or add to the discussion.
Tackling exclusively the issues brought up by Lutz in the exclusionary nature of double speak, an appropriate response would be to empower the public to actively seek more information than what jargon users provide. Being deliberate in questioning unfamiliar language is the responsibility of the listener as Lutz argues that jargon is not double speak in situations where it provides effective communication within a group (349). Therefore, the problem with courts is that lawyer’s jargon is permissible when speaking to those of the same professional background, but when speaking to the jury, they are not allowed to speak in court for clarification. Were jury members allowed to ask questions on the meaning of words that lawyers use, there would be little room for being taken advantage of with this opportunity for transparency in place.
Equally dangerous in double speak, is the distortion of language to shift perspective. Lutz outlines another version of double speak know as euphemism as “an offensive or positive word or phrase used to avoid a harsh, unpleasant or distasteful reality” (Lutz 348). In human resources, an employer who says to a worker that they are “letting them go” implies that they are allowing an employee to leave the company on their free will rather than taking responsibility for firing and removing them from the organization. However, this version is an acceptable use of euphemism as Lutz does acknowledge that some forms of euphemism is meant in respect to others feelings or because certain words or phrases are taboo (348). However, in other cases like when inmates are said to enter a “correctional facility” instead of a “jail” it implies that all that goes on in those buildings are done for the prisoner’s good. This is potentially dangerous as it now limits the definition of words in society’s mind so that they no longer question the actual inner workings of the institution that could be denying all sorts of basic human rights. It is because the language frames the institution as a positive space, that people associate all things in that space as equally good.
This very same flexible characteristic of language to frame it’s own argument can further produce negative double speak, but can also be used to counter it. Parington referenced the informal relationship between politicians in the White House responding charismatically and candidly to reporters as such “humor invokes setting up a frame of some sort that tells people that whatever is in the frame is ‘humorous’’ (380). Bearing this in mind, viewers of these televised broadcasts must on a personal level, ask themselves what frame is being sold to them by the media and is the media framing the story justly. To be aware of potential bias has power in itself. Even calling an audience a ‘viewer’ is to say that they are meant to visually receive information. But to be a ‘critical viewer’ is to protect themselves from being desensitize from an otherwise serious topic that the media plays off as jokes and fun.
To overcome the negative powers of double speak, people must be empowered to ask for clarification from others on concepts they do not understand and internally question the integrity of the information they receive, but the way they format these external and internal questions matters as well. Partington elaborates on the fact that “Irony…can blind speaker and hearer when a third party is the object of criticism” (378). By this, he means that saying one thing, but meaning the opposite only creates further confusion. This, trend is also backed by Lutz when he argues that double speak is infectious and can destroy the very function of language and communication between people and social groups (353). That being said, the critical thinker must then be aware of their own double speak tangled in their line of questioning. Double speak is best known for its limiting qualities to a specific interpretation of the word and similarly, questions can also be framed in a way that is limiting. To ask only a lawyer a definition of what larceny means in a legal context only achieves the base level of understanding. To follow-up and ask more qualitative questions like, “What are the varying severities of larceny?” would involve more sympathetic reactions to lesser examples of larceny and reactions out of grievance for higher versions of larceny. By asking more in depth questions, a more appropriate response can be made in respect for the deeper meanings that words hold to describe human events.
Lutz and Parington both outline the harmful implications of double speak in the face of jargon, euphemism and the unjust framing of information. However, such problems may be overcome by increasing the opportunity to look critically at language and framing the right questions to find the whole truth. In light of the destructive nature of jargon and euphemism, it only takes a people’s empowered response to want to be enlightened through their own critical examination. The onus weighs heavy on humanity to continue to question information to avoid falling victim to the terrible world of double speak.
Lutz, William. “The World of Double Speak.” 347-357. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.
Parington, Alan. ““Double-Speak” at the White House: A corpus-assisted study of bisociation in conversational laughter-talk.” Humor 24.4 (2011): 371-398.Web. 04 Mar. 2016.