Friday, October 9, 2009

Straight talk: an example (2) – H.L. Mencken

We writers should take a daily dose of straight talk. The diction we read and hear around us every day is often evasive: indirect, insinuating and euphemistic. Reading or hearing a bit of straight talk can help counteract the seduction of evasive diction.

A few samples from a famous straight-talker: H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the reporter, columnist, editor and lexicographer, was widely known for straight talk – often acerbic as well as straight. Here a few samples.*

On reformers

“The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

On intelligence

“No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” [This is probably Mencken’s most famous quotation.]

On the military draft

“If it is the duty of a young man to serve his country under all circumstances then it is equally the duty of an enemy young man to serve his. Thus we come to a moral contradiction and absurdity so obvious that even clergymen and editorial writers sometimes notice it.” [The adverb sometimes tells us a lot about Mencken's opinion of his fellow editorial writers, don't you think?]

On the sincerity of politicians

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and thus clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” [In all the public discussions of swine flu, trans fats, and global warming, how often have we heard a statement (from any political quarter) delivered in language as straight as that?]

The Takeaway: Many of us are startled when we read or hear straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to evasive, soft, insincere diction. I advise you to read or listen to a sample of straight talk from time to time. We should always remain consciously aware of evasive diction, lest we absorb it and unconsciously imitate it.

*I selected these samples because of the diction (not content) they contain. On this blog, I am promoting no political position – unless you consider clarity a political position. I often select samples from politics because, as Mr. Orwell so famously warned us, politics is the human activity most characterized by evasiveness.

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