on clarity

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say…”

A self-declared idealist-dreamer recently posited a world of clarity, in which people expressed themselves simply, and without obsfuscation. Is such a world possible? Is there anything simple about communication? Or, to be more precise: is there anything simple about human beings communicating with one another? Don’t we all carry the internal baggage of thoughts, feelings, values, assumptions, fears and foibles – tripping us up in their context?

Again I’m reminded of a long-ago Educational Philosophy course, taught by Dr. Timothy Riordan, in which I learned to painstakingly pick apart the assumptions and logical fallacies so liberally scattered throughout the rhetoric of the education establishment – such as, for example, the following: “I think it’s appropriate that we simplify, clarify and strengthen, so instead of this nebulousness, we have clarity and authority invested in teachers once more.” (Michael Gove)

Actually, a fantastic illustration can be found in this essay by my friend Tony, contained in a collection of speculations about the future, gathered under the banner The Future We Deserve. Tony unpacks the many layers of information and potential meaning hidden behind each of these words, and in so doing pulls the rug out from under the whole value-laden premise.

Dr Riordan was a wonderful teacher – one of those who made the entire degree programme worthwhile, for having encountered him in that one course. He encouraged skepticism and rational inquiry, and at the same time he shared an enthusiasm for learning that clearly bloomed from his heart.

Where else have I encountered this? Why, only today, in this lovely essay on Ragged Online, which suggests that “Education in it’s highest form does not set people up to fail but constantly revisits it’s last known communal point and endeavours to extend that horizon.”

But here’s the thing: Dr Riordan is both professor and poet. While he taught his students to interrogate the language for precision, he invited his readers to relax into its yielding folds. And where have I encountered this? Why, only today, in the pages of a book:

A meeting of minds
occurs simultaneously –
transitory proof
of the other’s existence,
a peripheral glimpse
of kindred spirits.

(exerpt from “Proof of Existence”)*

So I must ask this idealist-dreamer, who are the people living in that world of clarity? Do they speak only with the precision of a rational mind, and never the twists and tangles of a poetic heart? Do they not ramble on and stumble around in self-conscious stream-of-consciousness, like most humans? Do their words not ever collide?

* “Proof of Existence” can be found in Dr Riordan’s The Urge to Migrate (2006) – a copy of which arrived in my post this very morning. Isn’t it fascinating how all these stray threads can come together like so?

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