I had the chance to talk with a group of writer friends about this recently. And some of my favorite writers—from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett to film critic Roger Ebert—use a plainspoken style.
I want to share a few ideas about how plain language can help our work on Tibet.
Let me start by saying what plain language is not. It’s not talking down to anyone. It’s not dumbing your message down either.
Yes, it calls for short words and no jargon. But the main goal of plain language is clarity: You want your reader to get what you’re saying without having to work at it.
When it comes to Tibet, that’s important because so few people understand the issue at all. To get them to care, we first have to make sure they can follow what we’re saying.
The politics of plain language
As you can probably tell, I’m trying to use plain language in this blog post. Maybe it’s sounded awkward so far. (That just shows how hard plain writing is, even for a “professional” like me.) But now I must use some less-plain words to talk about one of the more serious parts of this topic.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is like holy scripture when it comes to plain writing. In it, Orwell talks about how “ugly and inaccurate” the English language had become.
This wasn’t due to the passing of time or some random event. Instead, bureaucrats, corporations, lawyers, academics and propagandists changed the language to their own ends, putting it out of reach of ordinary people—just think of the fine print at the bottom of a form, the dense prose of a college text, or the mutterings of the Chinese Communist Party.
This made it impossible for the average person to know what was going on and what most writing even meant.
China covers up the truth
I read “Politics and the English Language” for the first time almost 10 years ago. And one passage I’ve kept going back to since is:
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
It’s not hard to see how this relates to Tibet.
The Chinese government forces over 1,000 Tibetan nomads off a nature preserve, shoving them into urban encampments where they can no longer live the nomadic lifestyle their families have lived for generations. This is called “high-altitude ecological migration.”
China takes over 1 million Tibetan schoolkids away from their families, arrests and tortures Tibetans for having photos of the Dalai Lama, and installs surveillance cameras in Buddhist prayer wheels. This is called “a new way for world human rights development.”
The US passes a law saying only Tibetan Buddhists can decide what happens with the Dalai Lama’s succession. This is called “foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.”
How to talk plain
I always say that we Tibet supporters are not just fighting (nonviolently) to stop China’s oppression in Tibet. We’re also fighting a messaging war against the Chinese Communist Party.
Lucky for us, communists can’t seem to resist using leaden prose that lands with a thud. But we in the Tibet movement can still step up our game to reach people who don’t know or care what’s happening in Tibet.
Let me share a few tips for speaking and writing in plain English.
- First, never use a long word where a short one will do. When I was a student, I used a thesaurus to replace short words with longer, fancier ones. Today I do the opposite—and so should you.
- Use concrete words instead of conceptual ones. Talking about universal human rights or reciprocity makes sense for a lot of audiences. But for most people, talking about China’s prison guards sexually assaulting Tibetan nuns, or China refusing to let American journalists into Tibet, is going to hit harder.
- Avoid Latinate phrases. In English, Latin-origin words usually sound intellectual and upper-class, like “illuminate” rather than “light,” “terminate” rather than “end” or “sagacious” rather than “wise.” If you can pick between words like these, pick the non-Latin one.
- Choose verbs over nouns. A “hidden verb” is when you take a verb like “promote” and use its noun form, “promotion.” Rather than say, “Through the promotion of dialogue, we hope to peacefully resolve the Tibet-China conflict,” say, “By promoting dialogue, we hope to resolve the Tibet-China conflict peacefully.”
- Be positive! Instead of telling someone what they should not do, tell them what they should do. It’s better if I say, “Get rid of jargon” than, “Don’t use jargon.”
- Say “I” and “you.” This makes what you’re saying feel more personal. On that note, write the way you talk. Use contractions like “it’s” instead of “it is.” Cut out some of the formality.
- Get organized. I said earlier the main goal of plain language is clarity. That means making it easier for people to read what you put on the page. Write in short paragraphs (and short sentences while you’re at it). Break up your text with subheadings. Use bullet lists, like this one. Most important of all, organize what you say in a way your reader can understand.
- Write a second draft. To speak in plain language, you have to figure out what you actually want to say. That takes time. You’ll have to write and rewrite to get it right.
Why it matters
These are just some of the many tips for speaking in plain English.
Of course, there are also many exceptions to all these guidelines.
If you’re writing a legal document, for example, it’s possible none of this advice would serve you.
Also, in case this isn’t clear, I’m only talking about speaking in English (and mostly just American English at that). I have no idea if any of this would work for Tibetan or Mandarin or ancient Pali.
I also know that some of you might disagree with what I’ve said in this blog post. That’s fine. As you can see, I myself have broken some of the rules for plain writing in this very piece.
But still, I find plain English hard to deny. Not only is it easier to read, it’s also more urgent and forceful too.
And it serves a higher calling. Because plain language is supposed to be speech everyone can understand, it’s the language of democracy.
And since it avoids euphemisms, legalese and propaganda, plain language makes it easier to get the truth across. That makes a big difference.
As the Dalai Lama says: “We have the power of truth. Chinese Communists have the power of gun. In the long run, power of truth is much stronger than power of gun.”