Cambrian: Opinion

Legal lingo and buzzwords both show lack of trust

It’s an hour’s drive for me from home to work each day, so I’ve got plenty of time to listen to the radio. (Sometimes, I change the station if the chatter becomes too inane for my taste, which it often does.)

During that time, I’ve heard my share of ads with legal disclaimers. You know the ones. They’re on TV, too, usually associated with some kind of medical product. What seems like the whole second half of a 30-second ad is taken up by an announcer running through a long-winded paragraph of legalese at an auctioneer’s clip.

Almost nobody listens to these. Even if they could understand what was being said, a lot of it’s just plain too boring to bother with. Sometimes, when I have listened, I’ve found the content in some of the medical ads downright disturbing: The list of possible side-effects can be longer — and potentially more severe — than the list of advertised benefits.

I also listened to a bit of last month’s Republican debate and was struck by an apparent contrast.

Take the following exchange between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, U.S. senator from the same state, for instance.

Bush, criticizing Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate: “I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up?”

Rubio, responding: “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record. The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

This was sandbox stuff. No long-winded explanations or qualifiers. Just a simple dose of nah-nah-nah-NAH-nah!

Analysts boiled it down even more, declaring that Rubio had “won” and Bush had “lost” … which is all we really want to know at the end of the debate, right?

Not really. I don’t think the American public is that unsophisticated. But we do react positively to vacant, generalized sound bites and catchphrases. Amnesty, anyone? Black lives matter! (Gee, ya think?) Socialism! The 1 percent!

What’s interesting about all this is that both extremes — the sound bites on the one hand and the wannabe auctioneer’s legal droning on the other — are symptoms of the same condition: chronic mistrust.

Disclaimers and small print are there because, let’s be honest, the writer wants to cover his or her you-know-what so no one files a lawsuit. The writer doesn’t trust the consumer. And the consumer doesn’t trust the writer, either, because anyone who puts something in small print that no one has time to read is obviously trying to put one over on the target audience, right?

Catchphrases and buzzwords are products of the same mistrust. Whoever utters them likely doesn’t trust his audience with any specifics, because that might result in a backlash of criticism. Political candidates are infamous for this. Slogans are safe. Who can argue with patriotism or family or prosperity or equality? Once you start laying out policy positions, you make yourself vulnerable to attack, and no political candidate wants that.

On the other end, the public gets tired of buzzwords, which have more empty calories than a bucketful of movie popcorn and just about the same depth as a D-grade summer action flick.

What most of us really want — and rarely get — are frank discussions of the issues that deal in substance but use terms we can understand and digest without checking out a couple of dozen legal handbooks from the nearest law library.

Sometimes, issues are complex and require a thorough hashing out. Almost any development on the Central Coast, for example, deserves a complete analysis of how it will affect the environment. This can be a complex undertaking, especially in a place like Cambria, with its numerous microclimates and myriad environments. Discussions on such issues can be challenging and frustrating.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them. Or that we should replace them by sound bites and buzzwords on the one hand or “let the lawyers duke it out” on the other. If it’s important, we should engage one another in transparent dialogue — the kind that can begin to break down the mistrust that causes us to tune each other out in the first place.

I can hear some folks object, “If only it were that easy!” I agree. It’s not. Regurgitating buzzwords sure is, though. And even though it’s labor-intensive, I’d be willing to lay odds that writing reams of legal self-protection is easier, by comparison, as well. But easier doesn’t mean better. Mostly, it means preaching to a choir whose song is never heard beyond the cloisters. That can be satisfying, even intoxicating, but it seldom, if ever, resolves anything.

Both sides of so many arguments seem so enthralled by the sounds of their own oft-sung hymns that they never bother to listen to anyone else’s music. But hymns of buzzwords and legalese don’t sound too pleasant to these ears. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to change the station.

Stephen H. Provost’s column runs every other week in The Cambrian. Email him at sprovost @the tribune news .com.

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