Meaningless Words

Anybody who has read corporate marketing material or a corporate apology letter knows that it’s quite easy to put a bunch of words onto a piece of paper without having written anything meaningful. Corporations don’t have a monopoly on this skill either. Surpassing even the largest corporate marketing department are politicians. Politicians are the uncontested champions of meaningless words:

Without language, there is no accountability, no standard of truth. If Trump never says anything concrete, he never has to do anything concrete. If Trump never makes a statement of commitment, Trump supporters never have to confront what they really voted for. If his promises are vague to the point of opacity, Trump cannot be criticised for breaking them. If every sloppy lie (ie: “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower … This is McCarthyism!”) can be explained away as a “generality” or “just a joke” because of “quotes”, then he can literally say anything with impunity. Trump can rend immigrant families in the name of “heart”, destroy healthcare in the name of “life”, purge minority voters in the name of “justice”, and roll back women’s autonomy in the name of “freedom”. The constitution? Probably sarcastic. There are “quotes” all over that thing!

Setting aside the author’s obvious bias, this is a skill that almost every politician has. It’s more obvious when Trump does it because he’s a far less skilled orator than his predecessor. But if you hand me a speech or letter by any politician I’ll probably be able to read the entire thing without finding a single concrete commitment. As the author points out, if politicians don’t say anything concrete then there’s nothing to hold them accountable for.

Language is a tool for transferring information from one person to another. Somebody who is competent with language can transfer information effectively. So politicians must be very incompetent when it comes to language, right? Not necessarily. When politicians speak meaningless words they’re transferring very important information, namely that they are unwilling to commit themselves to anything. However, transference is a two step process. The information must be transmitted and received. Corporations and politicians like to use meaningless words because they can’t be held to anything and because the receivers have a strong tendency to put whatever meaning they want on those words. Trump supporters, for example, will attach positive concrete meaning to his meaningless words whereas his detractors will attach negative concrete meaning.

The reason so many people can get away with using meaningless language is because the receivers, your average Jane and Joe, aren’t competent enough with language to recognize it. Instead of recognizing that the words are meaningless and calling the transmitter out, most people attach whatever they want to meaningless words to reinforce their bias. I don’t blame Trump or Obama or any other politician for making meaningless statements. I blame the people for having such a lack of interest in pursuing knowledge that they allow themselves to be susceptible to this nonsense.