Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 247
May 27, 1997

Just Answer the Question, Please!

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I was watching Washington Journal on C-Span. A faxed-in question asked why, on this day, both of the invited editors expressed disdain for the military and neither one was an American citizen. The host resorted to 'bureaucrat-ese.' Instead of answering the question, he mentioned how C-Span later would be televising wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. (I define 'bureaucrat-ese' as language-obfuscation, in this case answering a question not asked. Not surprisingly, the Latin root of obfuscation is "to darken.")

The TV host's response made me realize why conversations with political, corporate and church leaders are so frustrating, and so futile. Leaders frequently tend not to listen, and by not listening, they fail to treat questioners seriously. By not listening, leaders are able to sidestep issues of policy and prejudice and to avoid the questioner's concern, anger or pain--legitimate or not.

Similar in substance, if different in style, are those traveling scholars who, following their speeches, entertain questions. The questions that get taken seriously are those for which the speaker already has a well-developed answer. The verbal clues to such a response are the speaker's satisfied smile followed by the words, "Now, that's a good question."

Too slow in recognizing 'bureaucrat-ese,' it is usually the lingering frustration or anger--subtle as it may be--clinging to the edge of my mind that wakes me up to the fact that I have been conned. Straight-forward disagreement is more tolerable than verbal dismissal. Disagreement at least means that two people have connected with each other.

The Biblical writer James looks on the tongue as an evil power that can set an entire life on fire "with flames that come from hell itself." Wow, I didn't know they had 'bureaucrat-ese' in the first century!


--Robert H. Tucker
27 May 1997


© Robert H. Tucker, 1997.
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