07/08/2013 09:47 am ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013

The New Illiteracy -- Obfuscation -- Hinders Progress

Much has been discussed, rightfully so, about the global problem of illiteracy -- the inability to read and write. But recently, a new and perhaps more pernicious form of illiteracy has emerged, indeed become epidemic: obfuscation. More than simply inarticulate or clumsy speech, obfuscation is the intentional misuse of language in order to avoid communication, to conceal or distract from substance or meaning. This rhetorical tool allows a speaker or writer to feign concern for an issue, while remaining vague, confusing, opaque, and ambiguous.

Obfuscation is a tried-and-true strategy for political candidates and public officials -- pretend to care about important issues, while avoiding commitments, timelines, and specifics. This is now the dialectic-du-jour for government, industry, academia, and even some well-meaning non-governmental organizations (NGOs), intended to deceive audiences into believing problems are being solved, when in reality they aren't.

We encounter this subterfuge everyday in issues from gun control to global warming to poverty to nuclear weapons to corporate responsibility. We can no longer afford such dangerous illiteracy in public discourse. It's time to demand clarity and action.

Language has been critical to the evolution of human civilization, and with the recent information and social media revolution, language itself has expanded dramatically. Global Language Monitor (GLM) estimates that today, there are about 1,020,000 words in the English language, roughly half of which were created in the last 60 years. Some 14 new words are created each day. GLM President Paul Payack put it simply: "Never before have so many people been able to communicate so easily with so many others."

Yet despite this historic expansion in language, conventional illiteracy remains one of the clearest underlying causes of the debilitating global disparity in socioeconomic development. The United Nations estimates that today there are 775 million people globally who cannot read or write -- over 10 percent of the world population. In some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, illiteracy rates exceed 50 percent. Astonishingly, tens of millions of Americans today are functionally illiterate .

People who cannot read and write are severely limited in the ability to improve their lives. The World Literacy Foundation estimates that illiteracy costs the global economy $1.19 trillion per year, and leads to reduced economic opportunity, restricted ability to participate in society, poor health, higher crime, increased poverty and hunger, greater reliance on government assistance, and chronic marginalization. This conventional illiteracy is a serious impediment to progress and sustainability, and it deserves our concerted attention.

But at the other end of the spectrum is a relatively new illiteracy, an anti-literacy of sorts, where language is used to avoid communication -- to obfuscate. Just as malnutrition can result from too little food (hunger) or too much food (obesity), illiteracy can likewise result from either the under use, or over use, of language. Each year, thousands of speeches, articles, webpages, reports, conferences, and workshops discuss important issues, but mostly as pretense and subterfuge to mask the lack of progress on these very same issues.

This phenomenon is more than just the mind-numbing, bureaucratic "muddlespeak," in which, as Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson complained, "impenetrable fedspeak produces more indigestion than information." Davidson cites one convoluted sentence in a 2009 federal register notice that is 200 words long, equivalent to a full double-spaced page of text. Kathy McGinty's "Nine easy steps to longer sentences" makes a humorous case against such bureaucratic writing.

Rather, the current epidemic of obfuscation is an intentional and dangerous strategy designed to talk about problems, but avoid solving them. Words now substitute for action. Agencies, industry, universities, and some NGOs thrive on this intellectual delusion, creating programs, dialogs, initiatives, committees, commissions, and entire departments with lofty titles and goals, but in the end, resulting in little positive impact. In essence, they are a pretense, a linguistic sleight of hand: say one thing, do another. Or, more precisely, do nothing at all. [Ironically, there is even a computer programming tool called an "obfuscator" which can be used "to convert a straight-forward program into one that works the same way but is much harder to understand."]

While we continue talking and writing about our problems, we are simply digging our hole deeper. Words used to be a means to an end, but now have become an end in themselves. Language -- this extraordinary tool that facilitated the rise of civilization -- is now actually facilitating political paralysis and stagnation.

At this point in human history, we need clear, honest discussion of issues -- environmental, economic, and social. And this is the focus of an emerging global "plain language movement", with organizations now in the UK, U.S., Australia, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, France, Finland, and Belgium. There is the Plain Language Association International, Clarity International, and the Center for Plain Language, whose motto is: "If it doesn't makes sense, demand to understand."

In the U.S., there is now a long overdue effort for plain language from the federal government, the Plain Language Action and Information Network. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that the federal government use "clear government communication that the public can understand and use." Several Executive Orders have been signed requiring regulations to be "written in plain language, and easy to understand." And in April, the Plain Regulations Act of 2013 was introduced into Congress, seeking to further improve the clarity of language from the federal government. Such efforts to clarify "fedspeak" deserve our wholehearted support.

But this isn't enough. Most importantly, we need to insist on clarity in all public discourse by government, industry, academics, and NGOs. In discussions about real-world problems, we should demand real-world answers, with specifics, commitments, and timelines. We should pay closer attention to the actions (and budgets) of industry and government, rather than their words. We should demand that public officials say what they mean, and mean what they say. If we can't talk honestly and clearly about our problems, we can't solve them.

But in the end, talking and writing about issues is meaningless if it doesn't lead to substantive action. Words are just words, scribbles on paper and screens, and voices -- no more, no less.

If we don't end this devastating illiteracy of obfuscation soon, we may find ourselves at the end of civilization on a ruined the planet, surrounded by the ashes of articulate articles, studies, books, and speeches detailing our 'dire predicament,' wondering what went wrong.