Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mantras dull our minds (1) – George Orwell and Thomas Sowell

Mantras dull our minds and the minds of our readers.

When we writers use mantras, we fool ourselves into thinking that we are thinking as we write. We are not thinking – we are mindlessly grabbing popular phrases just because they are popular. We forget that most mantras are popular because they are stupid.

And we fool our readers into thinking that they are thinking as they read our prose. They are not thinking. They are swallowing our mantras whole – as smoothly as Jell-O.

As we keep doing this, we make ourselves and our readers less and less perceptive.

George Orwell described this pernicious process in his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Here’s an excerpt:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…

“[A] mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose… As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

An example of a stupid and stupefying mantra

Thomas Sowell, a renowned clear thinker, discussed the mantra “make a difference,” which is an outstanding example of what Orwell was talking about:

“I would be scared to death to ‘make a difference’ in the way pilots fly airliners or brain surgeons operate,” wrote Dr. Sowell. “Any difference I might make could be fatal to many people.

“Making a difference makes sense only if you are convinced that you have mastered the subject at hand to the point where any difference you might make would be for the better.

“Very few people have mastered anything that well beyond their own limited circle of knowledge. Even fewer seem to think far enough ahead to consider that question. Yet hardly a day goes by without news of some uninformed busybodies on one crusade or another.”

The Takeaway: Think. Don’t mindlessly imitate people who use a lot of mantras. These people are dull and lazy. You are a professional writer. You are, and should be, perceptive and diligent.

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