In his famous but not widely-enough read essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell discussed the ways in which debasing language necessarily spoils our ability to think and thus to act responsibly. Rather than letting our meanings choose our words, we let our words choose our meanings, and this reflexive thoughtlessness has significant political consequences.

Orwell believed that the corruption of language largely resulted from persons trying “to defend the indefensible,” and that the first duty of a writer or thinker was to call things by what they actually are. In other words: civil society depends on the defense of using words properly.

But philanthropic organizations – the very institutions that should strengthen civil society – are precisely the ones most famously fraught with jargon. Instead of being clear and honest about the challenges they face, they hype their role and the effectiveness of their work. If you need poignant examples, just read this review of the MacArthur Foundation’s work.

Unfortunately, there is little incentive in our contemporary world either to use language well or to defend it against its corruption. In the hands of apparatchiks and administrators, language becomes increasingly flabby and words more inexact. As Orwell wrote, the words fall silently on things like a snowfall that gradually obscures the outlines to the point where the thing is no longer recognizable.

I was reminded of this recently when I received an email from our “Human Resources” office.

The fact that human beings are regarded as “resources” is itself a problem, particularly when you understand “resources” as matter to be manipulated and exploited. The email we received alerted us to an exciting “Leadership Development” opportunity! I always regard such things as comical in themselves. Do “leaders” need to be developed, and can they be? And how many “leaders” can we possibly have? Someone has to follow.

This particular email, however, informed us how the session would fit in with our “Workplace Values.” “Values” is one of those hopelessly vague and abstract words, being nearly a tautology in itself. “That is valuable because it is something I value.”

What are our workplace values? Five:

  • Excellence with Grace
  • Inclusion with Purpose
  • Compassion with Discernment
  • Dignity through Empowerment
  • Innovation and Inheritance

I challenge anyone to tell me what any of that means. The vacuousness of these pairings can best be demonstrated by switching around any of the ten nouns with any other one with no loss or gain of meaning. How about “Inclusion with empowerment?” “Innovation with discernment?” Try any of the matchings and you’ll get my point: the most noticeable thing about these values is that they don’t refer back to anything intelligible.

The “values” string together a series of abstract nouns that don’t commit any person to any particular course of action, and neither do they tell us anything about Hope College. You could take these couplings and plunk them into any organization and they’d have the same force, which is to say we’ve learned nothing about this particular place.

Let’s take seriously Orwell’s claim that whenever language is debased it’s because someone is up to no good. What possible nefarious impulses are at work here? Even if they are inane, who is really harmed? You could say the values are aspirational, but to what?

As I said, civil society depends on using words carefully and rightly. A general corruption of our language will make itself felt in many ways. Take, for example, our recent Presidential campaign: The crude language coarsens political life generally. When organizations use language in this witless fashion it softens the ground under all of us, making it increasingly difficult to get any traction when pushing back on things that matter.

More specifically, such usage has a way of serving the interests of those in power. They can hold those under them accountable through selective application. How, after all, does one respond to the charge that he isn’t being “inclusive” or “innovative?” Abstract imperatives require no evidence for their enforcement.

The lack of concreteness also allows those in charge to proliferate programs according to their own interests. In other words, such abstractions provide fig leafs for initiatives that protect ideas from otherwise serious analysis or doing a sensible cost/benefits assessment. An awful lot can be done by insisting it’s an expression of inclusion or compassion or “being innovative.” The concepts present no stationary target critics can shoot at.

Tocqueville wrote that if the light of civil society is ever extinguished it will dwindle by degrees rather than being snuffed out all at once. All it takes is for people of otherwise good will to think the darkness preferable, or that the flame doesn’t need tending.

Nonprofit organizations cavalierly using feel-good language weaken their contributions to civil society because when their words cease to mean anything, so do they.