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Bullshit

May 21, 2011

As part of my current job, I take job descriptions and translate them into simpler (and usually more general) language. Today I was working on veterinary descriptions, one of which said that would-be vets would have to “participate in the euthanization of animals.” According to the translation protocols I have to work within, the only way I could translate this was “kill pets.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to criticize vets–my best friend is one, euthanasia’s often a sad moral necessity, etc–but I appreciated the directness, the clarity of the translation. “Kill pets.” When you cut through the mistakes-were-made passivity of professional language, you start assigning responsibility. And isn’t that preferable for everyone? “Kill pets” tells our prospective vet exactly what she’s going to have to do–kill people’s pets as kindly and humanely as possible–and it tells her that she’s going to have to be the one to do the killing. It’s a nice reminder that there’s a moral quality to clarity, both in fiction and elsewhere, and it reminded me of a passage from a George Saunders article (“Thank You, Esther Forbes”) that really ought to be assigned in every composition or creative writing class ever:

A petty bureaucrat writes to his superior: ‘The lighting must be better protected than now. Lights could be eliminated, since they apparently are never used. However, it has been observed that when the doors are shut, the load always presses hard against them as soon as darkness sets in, which makes closing the door difficult. Also, because of the alarming nature of darkness, screaming always occurs when the doors are closed. It would therefore be useful to light the lamp before and during the first moments of the operation.’ The bureaucrat was the ironically named ‘Mr. Just,’ his organization the SS, the year 1942.

What Mr. Just did not write–what he would have written, had he been taking full responsibility for his own prose–is: ‘To more easily kill the Jews, leave the lights on.’ But writing this would have forced him to admit what he was up to. To avoid writing this, what did he have to do? Disown his prose. Pretend his prose was not him. He may have written a more honest version, and tore it up. He may have intuitively, self-protectively, skipped directly to this dishonest, passive-voice version. Either way, he accepted an inauthentic relation to his own prose, and thereby doomed himself to hell.

Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others).

Saunders goes on to say that one way we learn to distinguish more clear and honest language from evasion and elision is by exposure to the former, and I think that’s true. I have that last line, the one about bullshit, posted on the wall in my office. It’s a useful reminder for those times when I start to feel that writing stories or working with language is frivolous, and I think it makes a nice foundation for the mission statement of any writer/editor/teacher. We’re at war with bullshit. Hard to argue with that.

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