Language & Integrity

“Whenever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being”. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, prologue

P1040887A person of integrity says what she means and stands by what she says. Hypocrites say one thing and do another; lying, dissembling and bullshitting are ways of avoiding having to stand for something.

One way to think about the varieties of untruthfulness and pretence that erode integrity is to focus on the intentions and motivations of the speaker; how they can be co-opted, corrupted, and coerced. These questions are considered under the Action and Speech theme, and in the Integrity, Speech, and Action Project. Another way to approach the relationship between integrity and speech is to focus on language itself. What is it for a speaker’s words to be corrupt? What does it do to a speaker or to a linguistic community when her language become corrupt? How might we learn to recognise, and to resist, the erosion of integrity in language or by language?

An individual may—consciously or unconsciously—speak in a way that makes her meaning unclear. She may use pretentious or technical language and thereby ensure that her audience does not understand what she is saying. Alternatively, she may use euphemisms and clichés which mask—from her audience or from herself—what she is saying. Orwell (in ‘Politics and the English Language‘) remarks that an English Professor defending Russian totalitarianism could hardly state: ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’ but might instead use jargon, cliché, euphemism, and pseudo-academic prose to mask this grotesque commitment:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

Frankfurt’s bullshitter is another character who does not chose his words in order to make himself clearly understood, but rather to create a certain impression of himself in the eyes of his audience.

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind” … [T]he orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great … But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers … Rather … the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion … and so on.

The problem with such talk is not just that the individual fails to speak in a way which reveals his commitments and beliefs. By making flippant use of our moral and evaluative language, it seems possible that the language itself becomes devalued and less able to be used to express genuine value judgments. Would it any longer be possible to use these words with their true meaning?

In the examples discussed above it is unclear whether the speaker is consciously setting out to deceive, or whether he is simply insensitive to the ways in which what he says and what he means have become detached. If we are concerned about integrity, or lack thereof, is the unconscious bullshitter as corrupted as the conscious bullshitter? Can failure to be sensitive to language in this way really amount to a moral failing? Is the university administrator who absorbs contemporary managerial-speak and writes a job description calling for “Proactive customer and stakeholder engagement in an application deployment context” harming herself or others? Is a journalist who unthinkingly uses the phrase ‘austerity measures’ in place of ‘cuts’ showing a lack of integrity or merely a lack of care?

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt is in no doubt that this kind of unthinking speech is connected with Eichmann’s evil. In a series of observations about the banality of Eichmann’s speech, she presents him as a man who spoke only in clichés:

[O]fficialese became [Eichmann’s] only language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. . . . Whether writing his memoirs in Jerusalem or in Argentina, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words (Arendt 1964, 48–49)

We might at first assume that the problem with speaking only in clichés is merely aesthetic; someone whose speech is predictable and conventional in this way will be banal but not thereby vicious. However, it seems clear that Arendt connects the banality of Eichmann’s speech with the distinctive kind of evil which she attributes to him, and to the bureaucrats whose work made the holocaust logistically possibly.

By speaking in ‘officialese’ and ‘cliché’ Eichmann makes himself typical, and representative, of the evil regime of which he is a part. As such he fails to distinguish himself—to make himself distinct from—that regime. More significantly, however, in speaking in this way Eichmann’s speech—and thought—acts as a distorting sedative:

Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognizable function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence. (Arendt 1994, 160)

In allowing his speech to be nothing but stock phrases, clichés, and dead metaphors, Eichmann uses language in a way which made no claim on his attention, which insulates him from the trouble of thinking. How can a person who is unthinking in this way ‘stand up’ for anything? (See also Tolstoy’s discussion of ‘sleepwalking men’ and hypocrisy in the conclusion of The Kingdom of God is Within You).

The cases we have considered so far relate to the speech of individuals, but Orwell argues that corruption by means of language can become endemic in a culture or linguistic community.

To illustrate his point he translates the following passage from Ecclesiastes into modern English:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Rendered in (all too familiar) modern English as:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The loss here is not merely aesthetic—it is not just that the translation is ugly. The modern version has the appearance of precision, conveyed through semi-technical terms like ‘objective’, ‘comtemporary phenomena’, ‘competitive activities’, ‘commensurate’. It is written in the passive voice, conveying a sense of disinterested authority and objectivity. However, this precision and authority is deceptive. As Orwell points out,

the concrete illustrations [in the original]— race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases ‘success or failure in competitive activities’. This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like ‘objective considerations of contemporary phenomena’ — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

The implications for questions of integrity are clear. If integrity involves standing for something, and saying what one stands for, a move in language away from the precise and concrete and toward the vague and abstract, seems to undermine the conditions for integrity. Worse still, when the move from precise to vague is unconscious—when university statements slide from speaking about students, to customers, to stakeholders—the thoughtlessness that such language engenders might prevent us from noticing that we have stopped ‘picking out words for the sake of their meaning’ and are instead ‘gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else’ (Orwell).

Theme news>>

Relevant portraits

Hannah Arendt Photo of Anscombe Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Related projects

Integrity, Speech, and Action

Questions

  1. Does integrity demand clarity of speech?
  2. Can a person who speaks in clichés, bureaucratese, and euphemism be a person of integrity?
  3. What is the relation between the movement from precise to vague speech, and the movement from firm purpose to weakness of will?
  4. Can misuses of language make certain concepts or words unavailable to us?
  5. Can social or political structures make certain concepts or words unavailable to us?
  6. Is careless language a symptom (or a cause) of viciousness?

 Readings

  • Hannah Arendt 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago University Press
  • Hannah Arendt 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin
  • G. A. Cohen 2002. “Deeper into Bullshit”. Originally appeared in Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press). Reprinted in Hardcastle and Reich, Bullshit and Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 2006)
  • E. M. Forster in the Image Bank
  • Harry Frankfurt 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Karl Krauss 1914. ‘In These Great Times’. Die Fackel (Vienna, Dec. 1914); repr. In In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader, ed. Harry Zohn (1976).
  • Steven Maloney, Joshua A. Miller. 2007. Arendt, Terror and Cliché. Special edition of The Good Society, Volume 16, Number 2
  • George Orwell 1946. ‘Politics and the English Language’
  • Leo Tolstoy 1935. The Kingdom of God is Within You. London: Oxford University. chapter 11 and Conclusion,  pp. 316-444

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