Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A word to beware of...

Human, as an adjective, applies to all people and to everything we do, from writing poetry, composing music, and curing disease to cutting up the neighbour's children with a machete. However, plenty of writers use "human" in a poorly defined but strongly positive sense, referring to some act or attitude as "more human" to show approval, and "less human" to show the opposite. The very breadth of the word "human" makes it vague, which means an author can use it to express an attitude without explaining it.

Piling on vague adjectives only serves to multiply the vagueness, making a statement that only looks strong, because it deals with something that the writer never actually defines. You do not have to look too far, for example, to find someone using the phrase "authentically human". It usually seems to apply to something the author favours, although in fact, for example, Auschwitz authentically happened, and sad to say, human beings authentically did it, which makes Auschwitz as authentic an example of human behaviour as any of the other things we know human beings do.

I do not believe writers often use vague phrases like "authentically human" to express our own feelings; we usually describe our own feelings more clearly. I think we use vague phrases because we want other people to adopt our attitudes and beliefs, and not knowing the people who will read what we write, we cannot clearly tell them why they should. In other words, when we write vaguely, we do so because we want to have power over our readers, rather than share with them.

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