On Clarity


What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educational system, seldom pushing students to express themselves neatly, in clean and tidy ways. But that’s an easy target. After all, we are what we teach and vice versa.

In any case, I want to offer here an ode to clarity, to make a call for its worthiness—and to do it clearly. As a word, clarity isn’t just beautiful but also elegant, even peaceful. Like the word moon (in Spanish, it is even more melodious: luna), it enchants me, it makes me surrender to its sound. Merriam-Webster defines clarity somewhat unclearly, as “the quality of being expressed, remembered, understood, etc., in a very exact way.”) That etc. is unneeded. The same idea could have been expressed more economically, without the accumulation of passive verbs followed by obnoxious commas.

And what exactly does very exact mean? Exactness is a synonym of accuracy, so very exact must mean very accurate, that is, with anal-retentive precision. I, for one, am not talking about such extremes. Clarity is the capacity to be simple, unambiguous, on target, without blubber. It is about the freedom to choose the right thoughts, and, in succession, just the correct words to express them.

That the purpose of language in general is to communicate isn’t debatable. The question, as I’m suggesting here, is about the quality of that communication. When a sentence is unclear, is the problem at the level of language or is it at the level of thought? After all, language is thought articulated in words.

Amy Tan, in her essay “Mother Tongue,” describes her surprise at people’s response to her mother’s broken English. As an immigrant from China, her mother struggled, upon arriving to the United States, with forming syntactically correct sentences. The reaction was, in the eyes of others, that not only her language but also her thoughts were broken. That is preposterous, of course, for Tan’s mother was perfectly capable of expressing herself in Mandarin.

But the language of immigrants distracts from my thesis, which is that clear thoughts foster clear language. By this I mean that clarity might be an attribute of language only after our thoughts have been built rigorously—or, in the topography of Merriam-Webster, very exactly. And how does one reach clarity of thought? After a long process of careful, meticulous refinement. That, and nothing else, is what the life of the mind should be about: refinement of thought.

I consider the work of Jorge Luis Borges and George Orwell models of clarity. Take Orwell’s sentence from “Shooting an Elephant”: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.” The whole of imperialism is sharply encapsulated in it.

In expressing themselves, children tend to be enviably clear, perhaps because their verbal reservoir is limited but also because they have little patience for ornamentation. What they want, they are eager to get: refinement of purpose implies sharpness of tongue.

Grown-ups are at the opposite end. Might the problem be that, unlike children, adults don’t always know what they want? Or else, that we want too much, all at the same time?

When in need of laughter, my wife and I often do one of two things: watch a Marx Brothers movie (I am one of those who can recite entire sections of Duck Soup, and I start one of my courses, “Impostors,” with the mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo—or better, between Pinky and Firefly), or read Derrida. They take a diametrically different approach: the former is consciously hilarious, whereas laughter comes about in the latter by accident, among those who, like me, live outside the Derrida cult.

The following paragraph comes from “Of Grammatology” (1967):

The science of writing should therefore look for its object at the roots of scientificity. The history of writing should turn back toward the origin of historicity. A science of the possibility of science? A science of science which would no longer have the form of logic but that of grammatics? A history of the possibility of history which would no longer be an archaeology, a philosophy of history or a history of philosophy?

Does dense, complex thought require dense, complex language? No! Wittgenstein, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, states that “what can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”

It is rather easy to ridicule the Derrida quote. That ridicule doesn’t come from taking it out of context but from the inscrutability of it construction. Scientificity? Grammatics? Historicity?

In Don Quixote (Part I, Chapter I), Cervantes, deriding the fluffiness of chivalry novels, delivers one of the novel’s famous sentences (translated by John Ormsby): “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty.” Now that, unlike Derrida’s grammatocalifragilisticology, is a clear refutation of the unclear.

Maybe Derrida, secretly, is mocking understanding. I say maybe because I’m not sure. Or perhaps, a clown at heart, he seeks to undermine clarity, and, proving Wittgenstein wrong, to show that what can be said at all can also be said obfuscatingly. But does that mean it is deeper?

Again, No! Depth of thought doesn’t bring about linguistic malfunction.

I have a philosopher friend who teaches at a university in upstate New York. Not long ago, he told me that philosophers thrive on the feeling of intellectual superiority. They look down at the rest of the mortals as mentally limited. The fact that women are hardly represented in philosophy departments has much to do, in his view, with this macho approach: to be a philosopher is to be able to communicate in coded (e.g., befuddling) language.

The whole thing is baloney!

But I don’t want to turn this into a diatribe against philosophers. Lack of clarity is everywhere. Can you follow Rachel Maddow’s labyrinthine sentences? How about those of Speaker of the House John Boehner? His statements are usually short but seldom clear.

Shouldn’t we hold our politicians accountable when their ideas are blurred? Wouldn’t it be constructive to fire TV newscasters who don’t make sense, who talk in a spiral? Isn’t the classroom the place to teach clarity to the young?

Talking about the young, here is one more thought (that relates to Amy Tan’s mother): speaking in dialect doesn’t mean one is hazy. The other day, I heard a girl on a Brooklyn street say, “I can’t take nobody no more.” A common complaint that ain’t pretty but is clear.

Language changes, clarity doesn’t.

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