From post-truth to pro-clarity

From post-truth to pro-clarity

Clear communication is more important than ever.

The sage folk at Oxford Dictionaries have just declared "post-truth" to be the word of 2016. In the year of Brexit and Donald Trump, it seems that objective truth no longer matters so much as successfully appealing to prejudice.

Yet the drift towards a post-truth world has been with us for a while, as the Plain English Foundation's annual list of the worst words and phrases has shown for the best part of a decade.

Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Photo: Elesa Kurtz

It seems a year can't go by without some corporate heavyweights assiduously avoiding terms like "job loss". Instead, HSBC bank regretted it would be "demising" more than 900 staff. Citigroup described 11,000 job losses as "repositioning actions" while Microsoft culled 12,500 so it could remain within "an appropriate financial envelope".

These are classic examples of companies not saying what they mean in the hope that the underlying "truth" would be obscured.

A Donald Trump and Boris Johnson "Brexit" street mural in Bristol, England.

A Donald Trump and Boris Johnson "Brexit" street mural in Bristol, England.

Post-truth language also flourishes whenever there's an environmental issue, such as Volkswagen describing last year its cheating on emissions testing as a "possible emissions non-compliance". BHP Billiton assured us the tailings from a devastating dam collapse in Brazil were "relatively inert". Another company described a fire at its mine site as an "open-cut event", which sounded more like a weekend picnic.

And, of course, politicians have long been the masters of post-truth language. It's amazing the lengths they will go to when avoiding both the c-- word and the t-- word. They're not budget cuts, you see, simply "efficiency dividends". And that's not a new tax, it's just a "revenue measure" or even "an investment in human capital".

Such attempts to paper over the unpleasant with florid euphemisms have been with us for a long time. But increasingly we are seeing a far more cynical loss of sincerity. George Orwell predicted this danger about 70 years ago when he wrote: "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

Last year, for example, the ACCC took action against Nurofen for its "pain-specific" packaging. While its pills were identical, different packages and prices targeted sufferers of back pain, period pain, migraines and tension headaches. When called to account for this, the company clarified that "Nurofen pain-specific products provide easier navigation of pain-relief options in the grocery environment".

Did it really mean this? To paraphrase Orwell, could it really be sincere? If "easier navigation of pain-relief options in the grocery environment" was the only aim, it's hard so see why the pain-specific packages were almost double the price of the standard product. The Federal Court decided the packaging was "designed for profit", and fined the company $1.7 million.

Nothing quite captures this kind of post-truth marketing more than the humble egg. We know that consumers are willing to pay more for eggs dubbed as "free range". We assume this means the chickens providing them have a comfortable life and are free to roam outdoors during the day.

Yet the national standard that ministers approved this year defined "free range" as packing up to 10,000 birds per hectare, so long as they have "meaningful and regular" access to the outdoors. By contrast, the RSPCA supports 1500 birds per hectare, as does the CSIRO's model code of practice.

Smaller producers of what consumers would consider to be actual "free-range" eggs are now starting to use the term "pastured eggs" to differentiate their products. The term "free range" has become so debased it needs to be replaced.

When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns ... instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

George Orwell

This is hardly an isolated example of post-truth marketing in the foundation's worst words lists. A supermarket chain labelled its sausage rolls as "ambient", conjuring visions of New Age sitar music and sandalwood incense. It turns out it means the product "can be consumed at room temperature".

In another example, a dental industry spokesperson responded to a Choice magazine finding about the damaging effects of teeth-whitening products by acknowledging this was a "negative good". Then there's the company that landed in hot water for describing gas leaks of polluting chemicals like hexavalent chromium and ammonia as "fugitive emissions".

So while Brexit and Trump have supplied the most blatant examples of post-truth politics in 2016, we should also increase our awareness of post-truth language in our daily lives.

There are two simple rules that every politician or organisation should follow if they want to lay claim to ethical communication. Let's call these the golden rules of clarity.

First, say what you mean, and don't dress up reality in fancy-pants euphemism. But above all, mean what you say. Be sincere and genuine. As Trump and the Brexiteers may find, post-truth language might work for you in the short term, but reality has a habit of catching up.

Dr Neil James is executive director of the Plain English Foundation, which will release its list of the worst words and phrases of 2016 on December 20.

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