English Language

Formal Language: Manipulation & Obfuscation

by
Lisa Tran

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Go ahead and tilt your mobile the right way (portrait). The kool kids don't use landscape...

Did you know that in addition to formal language being incredibly precise, it also can function as a means of obfuscation and manipulation? Quite the contrast and quite contradictory too. As a functioning member of society and a burgeoning linguist, it is your task to differentiate between when formal language is purposefully confusing you or actually trying to painfully clear and precise (think of a terms and conditions document). For the purposes of this article today, we will be looking briefly at this idea of obfuscation and manipulation. But first, let's define them!

Obfuscation can be defined as "the obscuring of intended meaning in communication, making the message confusing, willfully ambiguous, or harder to understand"

Manipulation can be defined as "to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one's own advantage"

Let's first have a look at modern day politics and how the recent tax saga has caused the leakage of some obfuscatory terms. According to Richard Denniss, the author of Econobabble, "What is econobabble? We hear it every day, when public figures and commentators use incomprehensible economic jargon to dress up their self-interest as the national interest, to make the absurd seem inevitable or the inequitable seem fair." Ultimately in politics, especially with reference to tax and finances, politicians often use 'fancy sounding words' often of French or Latinate origin.

Richard Denniss further states that “unfortunately, the primary role of economics in Australian political debate has become the narrowing of the choices we face and scaring the public into doing things we don't want to do. You know the stuff: if we don't cut the company tax rate we will become "uncompetitive"; if we don't cut the top tax rate then rich people will have no "incentive" to work hard; and if we don't cut the meagre welfare benefits of the poor then the budget will become “unsustainable". These are also examples of ‘public language’.

Let's examine these three highlighted lexemes further. What the hell do they even mean? Seriously. Think about it and you may come to your own conclusion, but it's often murky and riddled with uncertainties. Now, the next time you watch the 6pm news and see the Treasurer speak or any other political figure, listen out for these words or words of a similar structure. When I was reading the newspaper a few days ago, I came across this interesting comment by a Herald Sun reader (see photo below):

public-language-photo

Take a look at the excerpt "living within our means", meaning reduced quality of health, educational and welfare services. Interesting how this term is used so frequently yet we just seem to blindly accept its usage? Whenever I hear this term, my feeling and rationalisation is that it means you accept that you can't afford certain objects or services, but usually without an inkling or questioning behind it.

Furthermore, in early 2015, the then Treasurer Joe Hockey stated, according to Annabelle Lukin of The Conversation “…[recently] handed down what would be its most unpopular budget… [and] Hockey tried to convince us to pay more tax [by using the term] contributing…”. In this example, Joe Hockey makes use of the euphemism ‘contributing’ in order to wilfully influence the Australian audience into paying more taxes, therefore manipulating and obfuscating the truth. How? Because the term 'contributing' creates a greater sense of inclusivity with the Australian audience, as though we're 'in this together'.

To add further fuel to this argument, for those of you who use Adblock (a plugin for your internet browser to block banner ads and other ads), you'll notice that certain sites can detect when it is activated in your browser. Now, oftentimes these sites display advertisements of which they earn revenue from them and so having 'Adblock' enabled will prevent them from earning an income! But rather than state it like that, they say: “You have Adblock enabled. Adblock has been known to cause issues with site functionality. If you are experiencing any difficulties, please try disabling Adblock".

Have a look at those two highlighted words/phrases:

  • 'Has been known to' - wait, by who? This is known as an agentless passive as the author may actually not have any evidence to support this.
  • 'Functionality' - what the hell does this mean? What is functional in this context? It's quite unclear in its definition as functionality is very subjective (depending on context and technology).

In addition, syntactic nominalisations in formal language also serve the profound ability to impede clear thinking and prevent unambiguity. For example, in the Qantas Customer Charter document, the author makes use of bureaucratese in order to minimise clear thinking. This can be seen in the sentence “We aim to minimise the environmental impact of our operations and have targets and commitments to guide our performance”. In this example, the author uses five nominalisations, which according to Henry Hitchings of the New York Times in 2013 “[they] reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction and as such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business”. In this example, I am of the firm belief that the author wishes to either not disclose these environmental policies due to the abstraction of these terms, of may not have them at all!

Well there you have it! My initial thoughts regarding formal language and its obfuscatory purpose. Now, your challenge is to add to this list, which will subsequently allow you to dominate your essays!

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