The Case Against Saying What You Mean

Slip of the Lip

Hailing from the glorious city of Queanbeyan, I spent my first year of uni dabbling in Physics, Maths, English and Music. By some drastic turn of events, I am now majoring in German and Linguistics. A Slip of the Lip is a linguistics student’s attempt to provide interesting and (reasonably) well-researched language titbits.

slip lip

In a world where “say what you mean, mean what you say” is conventional wisdom, we can’t afford for our political campaigns and contemporary literature to follow suit. By doing away with ambiguity we’re robbing ourselves of the chance for deeper thought and greater change.

 

Until the ripe old age of six, children are unable to understand word riddles and metaphors. They can’t explain why the joke, “What do you call an alligator in a vest?” “An investigator!” is humorous, presuming instead that an investigator is simply a well-dressed reptile, or that alligators in suits must necessarily be involved in the pursuit of criminal justice. They lack metalinguistic awareness – the understanding that the form that words take can be entirely divorced from their meaning.

 

This kind of metalinguistic understanding is what allows us to explore the greater issues of the world through literature. Analogies and metaphors exploit metalinguistic understanding to make difficult concepts accessible. Without them, Animal Farm is just a story about some weird megalomaniac pigs. With them, a story about a farm becomes a gateway to understanding complex political doctrines and events. Not only that, but by writing a work of fiction rather than an essay entitled “Comments on early 20th Century Russia”, Orwell, and writers like him, leave a whole lot of ambiguity, forcing the reader to form their own judgements and draw their own parallels.

 

This is also why political activists often don’t say exactly what they mean – why the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t called the Black Lives Matter the Same as Everyone Else’s and We Just Want Unbiased Treatment Because We’re Still Being Targeted at Disproportionately High Rates movement. Not only is it catchier, but the ambiguity of the three word slogan makes it easy to identify the people who have the privilege of not experiencing the issues first hand, and have also not made the effort to understand the problem.

 

To people who live with the mindset of taking everything at face value ‘All Lives Matter’ sounds great. In fact, when you put ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘All Lives Matter’ side by side without knowing the context, it looks like ‘All Lives Matter’ is better for promoting equality. It makes sense that this is the one that privileged and ignorant, but often well-meaning people take up. This makes them really easy to identify, and thus easy to challenge and educate. Gradually more people are called out for their ignorance and are made aware of the issues at hand, and gradually society moves towards more lasting change – or at least better-informed bigotry.

 

This could not happen with the Black Lives Matter the Same as Everyone Else’s etc. movement. It would fail to truly engage the privileged-and-ignorant demographic. They would not make the ‘mistake’ of adopting an All Lives Matter the Same as Everyone Else’s etc. movement, because it simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, they’d read a headline, grasp the basic concept, hit ‘like’ and move on with their privileged, but ignorant lives. These people can make all the difference in campaigns like this, and by saying exactly what they mean activists would be missing out on a chance to affect real change.

 

So don’t be afraid to be a little cryptic. Make Playschool videos critiquing government policies. Make provocative slogans that don’t tell the whole story. You don’t have to pander to a world that wants to absorb face-value information like a five year old. Make them think.