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On Obscurity

This is still on my mind today; its an extension of the thoughts below, and the Orwell piece “Politics and the English Language“, which I strongly commend to anyone who hasn’t read it in the last few weeks.

I want to return to the maxim: as I suggested, I think that anyone who understands something can explain it to an interested third party or reasonable intelligence and some interest. A lot of my posts on Buddhism are part of that; as I think about them, and try to make them clear, sometimes I find I don’t understand them as well as I might. Then I’m forced to go back to things like the Sanskrit or Chinese, as I did to think about the Eightfold Path. When I feel like I can explain it, I feel confident that I understand it.

So now we’re in the middle of a political campaign, and there’s a lot of speech around, all intended to persuade us. I’ll grant that sometimes people can’t explain something because they don’t understand it, and I’ll grant that some people may simply not have the skill to explain something they do understand; i’d be hard pressed to explain a lot of things in German, and I’m actually pretty fluent. In that context, perhaps I’m just not sufficiently competent in German to manage to make myself clear.

In the case of our politicians, however, we can pretty well expect that they’re more than merely competently fluent in English. [1] If they’re explaining their own positions, I think we have some reason to expect that they understand them; if not, that’s an issue in itself.

It’s not uncommon, though, to here a political candidate explain something; reverse it; explain why they aren’t really reversing themselves; complain of the distraction from real issues; and so on.

That, it seems to me, is the point where we ought to start looking more closely; that’s the point where we ought to ask ourselves “is this necessarily obscure?”

If not, it’s time to ask “why would it be to someone’s advantage for this to remain obscure?”

  1. Don’t throw Bush up as a counter-example; he, like most everyone else, stumbles in some situations. But both when he was a written text from which to work, and when he’s talking one on one with other people, he is fluent, and in a plain-spoken way eloquent. []

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