[…] a report in today’s newspaper about a government plan to hand more power to individual schools. This is how the bureaucrats explain what they’re up to:
“The aim of the initiative is to facilitate systemic national reform to establish autonomous school operation as the norm across all Australian sectors, with schools predominantly being self-governing. Increasing school autonomy will improve student performance by providing principals, parents and school communities a greater input into the management of their local school.”
i discussed such vile bureaucrat-speak with one of my students, a waste management project manager. He was in his late 50s, a decent, understated chap without much imagination, but a typically wry German sense of humour. At first i thought him standoffish and suspicious, but after an hour we took to each other. He was, i feel, one of the quiet, unnoticed good men of the earth, moral but unshowy, uninterested in parades, public speeches, protests, placards, banners, wild gesticulations and denunciations and politics. Instead, he did his job, that is, he made the world cleaner and safer in a firm, business-like way. Contrast him with the “green” activists who fulminate in The Guardian, all talk and no trouser. There often seems an inverse proportion between morality and moralising; i wouldn’t want to push it too far but in general it holds true.
My student thought bureaucrat prose is designed to sound inhuman, alien, nothing anyone would ever speak, that this is its essential function – to sound non-human. For in our age, the machine age, the human is derided as obsolete and contemptible, and the machine is authoritative. To carry authority one must sound inhuman, a machine. A bureaucrat would be ashamed to sound human.
i have heard one person speak like a machine, the then Chair of the English Depot at my university, in 1998; i asked if i could skip tutorials with one particular tutor (because she disliked me and i disliked her); the Chair retreated behind his glasses, so all i could see of his eyes was a pair of Hal 9000-like dots; he said blandly: “attendance at tutorials is non-negotiable.” He meant he would throw me out of the university if i failed to attend; it was a threat, and uttered in a machine-like, affectless drone, to displace responsibility to The Regulations. Thus, if he threw me out of the university, he was only obeying orders, it wasn’t his decision; he had no independent agency, no volition, no humanity. He was just following orders, like a machine. Thus, he had authority without volition.
This is the predominant theme of our times, and duly reflected in official prose, in government, in academia. One could write off the whole of Literary Theory as an attempt to suck up to the machine, by sounding like a machine. The result is a lifeless morass, a thicket of anti-language, the words turned against the word, their purpose to confuse and intimidate. But this too will pass. Hal is deactivated and likewise the human will assert itself against the entropic forces. Magic will return, delight will return, as before. Consider the words of Alfred Denning, and wash away the modern world with all its ill:
In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team play there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings after work they practise while the light lasts. Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play there any more. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket. This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket. But now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket ground. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable. So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for more houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground.