The word exists to speak the world, not to falsify it.
—Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat.
Once upon a time, many years ago in central Washington, I was contracted by a government agency to review and edit an environmental impact statement analyzing the significance of a certain action’s effects on a high-visibility endangered species. The first draft of the document was made available to reviewers, and after having time to thoroughly review the draft, the other reviewers and I met in Teleconferenceland to discuss it.
On the line were about 10 of us—contractors in Seattle, biologists in Lacey, managers in Olympia, and sub-contractors in Ellensburg. We were working our way through the document, discussing it page by page, when we got to a page that contained one sentence I could make neither heads nor tails of.
In instances where criteria do determine an aspect of significance, because that aspect is not logically describable, no criteria are used.
Being new to the whole bureaucratic environment I cautiously waited before saying anything to see if anyone else expressed a problem with the sentence, but no one did. So before we moved on to the next page, I directed everyone’s attention to that sentence and asked if someone could tell me what it meant.
No one knew what it meant. One person on the line very tentatively offered an interpretation that could only be classified as hallucinogenic. The rest of us agreed that it couldn’t possibly mean that. Finally, since nobody knew what it meant, we decided that we could probably delete it without any ill effect on the discussion at hand.
Then, several months later, I was contracted by the same agency to review another document—I was about to say, a completely different document, but it wasn’t. The subject was different, but large chunks of the document had been cut-and-pasted from earlier documents. And sure enough, I found myself once again confronted by the same exquisitely meaningless sentence.
And yet again I had to call everyone’s attention to the sentence. The only difference this time was that the ensuing silence was broken by a muffled but distinct “Oh no.”
My friend and fellow Marx Brothers aficionado Danél Griffin reminds me of the scene in Animal Crackers where Groucho dictates a letter composed entirely of meaningless, legalistic idioms:
We have gone over the ground carefully and we seem to believe, i.e., to wit, e.g., in lieu, that despite all our precautionary measures which have been involved, we seem to believe that it is hardly necessary for us to proceed unless we receive an ipso facto that is not negligible at this moment.
I challenge readers to find a substantial difference between Groucho’s fictional absurdities and such real-world gems as “after five years, we will review the five-year agreement to determine whether to keep it in effect or to renew it.”
Back there in Teleconferenceland, it occurred to me that this was probably my first real-world encounter with the big idea behind Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Everyone could see that the Emperor wasn’t actually wearing any. And no one understood that sentence that we had all read and reviewed. But each person on the line assumed that he or she was probably just missing the point. Someone else must understand it, right?
But no one did.
In his last and greatest book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes:
If, when thought is needed, nobody does any thinking, if everyone assumes that someone else is thinking, then it is clear that no one is thinking either for himself or anyone else. Instead of thought, there is a vast, inhuman void full of words. . . .
A large part of the problem with public writing is that we’re not writing for each other, and that allows us to get away with not thinking. If I am tasked with writing an environmental assessment that conforms to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, I am going to try as much as possible to echo NEPA, to use the language it uses to ensure that my work follows the statutory guidelines. The problem is that instead of beginning my writing by thinking clearly I end up simply parroting someone else’s words without having grappled with the meaning of those words myself.
Instead of writing for readers, I end up writing for NEPA. Only NEPA can’t read.
Then a little farther down the road someone else picks up my sentences and paragraphs with a few clicks of the mouse and pastes them into their own document, without themselves having ever grappled with the meaning of my words, and the whole process ends up becoming endlessly reflexive. Reflections of reflections of reflections. Pretty soon no one is doing any thinking at all, and we begin the long slide down into writing that is utterly banal.
As George Orwell predicted: muddy thinking leads to muddy writing, and muddy writing leads to muddier thinking. It’s the relationship in which a couple talks about nothing but the relationship. And that’s when you know the relationship is over.
• Jim Hale can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, jimhalewriting.com. The Alaska Press Club in April 2016 awarded him the Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist for his “On Writing” column.