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Transparency, Clarity and Understanding

The call for more transparency is a compelling one.  We should have more information, more easily available.  Stuff should not be hidden away.  I am generally a believer in all of this, and that people have greater ability to absorb and critique than they are given credit for.  But there are risks and caveats which keep getting in the way.  Here are some.

‘People will draw the wrong conclusions’.  This means that the evidence might be interpreted in a different way than the owners of the information desire.  This is an unacceptable defence.  If different people from different perspectives draw different conclusions then this requires debate.

‘People won’t understand’.  This is very interesting trap.  If you are not careful it leads either to the conclusion that material should be kept back, or it should be dumbed down with extra special effort to make sure it can be understood in simple terms.  This latter is often linked to the first statement and helps ensure that the ‘right’ conclusions can be drawn.  Both of these conclusions are however a sort of reverse elitism similar to the proposition that long words cannot be used in case they are not understood.

I heard Ben Okri recite a poem the other day in which he used the word hyperborean among many other long words.  I was pretty sure I knew this had something to do with the North from a connection to aurora borealis, but I still had to go and look it up[1].  Should Okri not have used such a word, or is it only acceptable in poetry?  Much of the self-improvement movement of the nineteenth century came from the desire to learn, to meet the challenge of the interesting and difficult.

Now apparently, we cannot let anything out unless it is ‘easy to understand’.  This form of elitism ensures that the difficult will be reserved for the elite, who will not allow others to be challenged, to take the risk of trying to understand the difficult, and God forbid they should draw their own conclusions.

It is true that if you can’t explain something simply, you probably haven’t understood it – a quotation in several forms generally attributed to Albert Einstein.  However, this is not the same as allowing other people to have their own go at understanding and own attempts at thinking things through.

Transparency may not always be clear, and it certainly involves taking risks with the potential for challenge.  Challenge can be scary and sometimes over-simplifies an argument.  But such challenges ought to improve learning, improve decisions and improve democratic accountability.  And if some words I don’t understand get in there, I’ll just look them up.  Bring it on.


[1] It means ‘inhabitant of the extreme North, or referring to the extreme North.  Hyper=extreme, Borean=of the North

by Bridget Rosewell

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