If You Have Nothing to Say, Say Nothing

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

If You Have Nothing to Say, Say Nothing

Twaddle Tendency

When asked why a fifth of Americans were unable to locate their country on a world map, Miss Teen South Carolina, a high school graduate, gave this answer in front of rolling cameras: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and I believe that our education like such as South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., should help South Africa, and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future.” The video went viral.

Catastrophic, you agree, but you don’t waste too much time listening to beauty queens. Okay, how about the following sentence? “There is certainly no necessity that this increasingly reflexive transmission of cultural traditions be associated with subject-centered reason and future-oriented historical consciousness. To the extent that we become aware of the intersubjective constitution of freedom, the possessive-individualist illusion of autonomy as self-ownership disintegrates.” Ring any bells? Top German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas in Between Facts and Norms.

Both of these are manifestations of the same phenomenon, the twaddle tendency. Here, reams of words are used to disguise intellectual laziness, stupidity, or underdeveloped ideas. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. For the beauty queen, the smoke screen strategy failed spectacularly. For Habermas, it has worked so far. The more eloquent the haze of words, the more easily we fall for them. If used in conjunction with the authority bias, such drivel can be especially dangerous.

I myself have fallen for the twaddle tendency on many occasions. When I was younger, French philosopher Jacques Derrida fascinated me. I devoured his books, but even after intense reflection I still couldn’t understand much. Subsequently his writings took on a mysterious aura, and the whole experience drove me to write my dissertation on philosophy. In retrospect, both were tomes of useless chatter—Derrida and my dissertation. In my ignorance, I had turned myself into a walking, talking smoke machine.

The twaddle tendency is especially rife in sport. Breathless interviewers push equally breathless football players to break down the components of the game, when all they want to say is: “We lost the game—it’s really that simple.” But the presenter has to fill airtime somehow—and seemingly the best method is by jabbering away, and by compelling the athletes and coaches to join in. Jabber disguises ignorance.

This phenomenon has also taken root in the academic spheres. The fewer results a branch of science publishes, the more babble is necessary. Particularly exposed are economists, which we can see in their comments and economic forecasts. The same is true for commerce on a smaller scale: The worse off a company is, the greater the talk of the CEO. The extra chatter extends to not just a lot of talking, but to hyperactivity also designed to mask the hardship. A laudable exception is the former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch. He once said in an interview: “You would not believe how difficult it is to be simple and clear. People are afraid that they may be seen as a simpleton. In reality, just the opposite is true.”

In conclusion: Verbal expression is the mirror of the mind. Clear thoughts become clear statements, whereas ambiguous ideas transform into vacant ramblings. The trouble is that, in many cases, we lack very lucid thoughts. The world is complicated, and it takes a great deal of mental effort to understand even one facet of the whole. Until you experience such an epiphany, it’s better to heed Mark Twain: “If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” Simplicity is the zenith of a long, arduous journey, not the starting point.