Friday, 18 April 2008

Philology, philosophy, action

It helps to watch your language

On Monday I published a short invited article in the inaugural issue (vol. 1, no 1) of a new quarterly Internet serial, Interconnections Journal:

Andrew Sutton, 1984, 2008, 2050, Interconnections Journal, vol. 1, no 1, April 2008

There’s nothing new in what it I wrote, nothing that I have not hammered enough for years in my regular Opinion column in Special Children magazine, but it is nice to be asked to say it again, in 2008. The opening words of this article are as follows.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world, and every week on Radio 4’s Today programme John Humphrys determinedly challenges government ministers and other worthies to explain what their clichés and gobbledegook actually mean. For without real meaning policies are unrealisable, and they and their perpetrators are just that little more unaccountable. That goes for all of us...

In other words, if the words that you think with are rubbish, then your thinking will probably be rubbish too.

The worlds of ‘special needs’ and ‘special educational needs' are riddled with rubbish words, junk vocabulary enabling only junk thinking (not least the unthinking use of the word ‘needs’!). This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom and I suspect that its influence taints things elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Conductive Education arrived in that world with a fairly firm linguistic conceptual base, though almost at once was shot in the foot by adoption of the inexact and confusing catch-all descriptor of ‘Conductive Education’ itself (rather later, in the German-speaking lands, an if anything worse choice was made – ‘konduktive Förderung’).

Now, buried in new cultural contexts, Conductive Education risks absorbing not just the words of new cultural environments but the concepts that they signify, communicate and generate. The meaningless word 'support’ is one that I particularly deprecate, yet I have even begun (more than once now) to come across the statement ‘Conductive Education supports children…’

I though that this is what standing frames etc do.

Plod speaks, thinks and acts: a national disgrace

Education and ‘special needs’ are hardly unique to the tendency for junk jargon. The day before my own article was published a report from the Plain English Campaign published a report strongly criticising the police for what it called ‘Ploddledegook’ (not the first such criticism directed towards this particular sector):

Do you speak Ploddledegook? The police force jargon that should be banned, This is London, 18 April 2008

Sloppy speech, sloppy thinking, failure to see the wood for the trees, lousy uncritical practice: look at the incident, widely reported in the media this week, that threw such dismal light on… well, on lots of things. If you want to see how low the United Kingdom has sunk in burying sense under balderdash, have a look at this gem from Scotland:

Melanie Reid, Police charged Down's syndrome boy with mental age of five,
The Times, 17 April 2008

At least, following widespread outrage, the Crown Office has now apologised to the young man and his family.

Melanie Reid, An apology at last for family of Down’s boy accused of a racist assault, The Times, 18 April 2008

The upper echelons have demonstrated some sense but what does this whole sad shambles say about the educational level (yes, and the intelligence and shear common sense) of the ’professionals’ and the 'managers’ who actually provide public services? I cannot see that without these important elements the worn old panacea of ‘more training’ can alone work the oracle.

‘Professionals’,‘managers’? I should be careful: I’m using their words and in danger therefore of slipping into their ways of thinking. I should have written more accurately, perhaps saying ‘semi-professionals’ and ‘bureaucrats’, to describe their actual social roles. The 1984 Newspeak that I have derided in my recent article in Interconnections Journal is so pernicious: it has even slipped with all its vacuity into the Crown Offices apology:

The family were aware that the Procurator Fiscal was exploring the possibility of dealing with this case in a way that would have provided additional support to Jamie.

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