Acorns, Embryos and The Official Style
When composing a document of any sort you must first ask yourself a few questions. Who is my audience? Is it broad or narrow? Am I writing to a certain demographic, or to readers in general? Also, what is the purpose of my writing? Am I trying to persuade or inform? More often than not audience and style may come into contact, and may even contradict one another. In the case of the paper that I am going to be analyzing and critiquing, two different components compete, and butt heads. The overwhelming question is; will official style and persuasive voice be able to successfully work together, or will one overcome the other?
Whether in support of, opposed to, or even completely withdrawn from the topic, most Americans would agree that the topic of stem cell research, and the use of embryos to do so is a controversial, and often an emotionally charged subject. When writing an article or paper that deals with a subject of a controversial nature, the official style is a key component in sounding educated and scholarly. The main goal with any controversial topic is usually to persuade an audience one way or another. The paper that I will be analyzing comes from a scientific journal called The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, and the paper is dutifully named Acorns and Embryos. According to the journal’s website, “The New Atlantis is an effort to clarify the nation’s moral and political understanding of all areas of technology — from stem cells to hydrogen cells to weapons of mass destruction.” The authors Robert George and Patrick Lee take a scientific and technological viewpoint on a long-standing emotionally driven topic, and their goal is to persuade their audience to agree with their viewpoints. The purpose of their paper was to dispute another argument made by two members of the President’s Council on Bioethics published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This article features a few distinct characteristics of the official style, and has many pertinent examples that I will be discussing as well as critiquing. The question at hand is just how well do the official style and persuasive voice work together to convince the target audience, and to sway them one way or another?
When considering characteristics of the official style one that is frequently used is the incorporation of jargon into text. Jargon can be defined as “special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” In this specific article jargon is widely used, and may be widely understood by a certain demographic of people. However, if the authors are attempting to persuade an average reader, the use of jargon simply creates a divide. One clear example of jargon within the article reads, “But what about the claims of Paul McHugh? Is there a morally relevant difference between blastocysts that come into being by the union of gametes and those that are produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer?” When considering jargon usage you must first examine who the target audience is. If the audience is broad, the “average reader,” will more than likely be dumbfounded as to the definition of blastocysts, gametes, and possibly even somatic cell nuclear transfer unless they are well read in the areas of biology and the human reproductive system. The authors go on to write, “Even if human embryos are nothing other than embryonic human beings, as we argue and McHugh agrees, are “clonotes” something other than human embryos?” If the authors were to put these words in laymen’s terms everyday readers, or people who are not well learned in the academic areas of biology and genetics would be much more engaged and interested in the argument being presented. When determining whom the target audience is, the answer is simply not as cut and dry as it may seem. There are two very different demographics that may be reading this piece, one academic and specifically designated group of scholars that particularly focus on the topics and hand, and another very different demographic that simply wants to learn more on the subject of stem cell research. These two examples of jargon exemplify the idea that when using the official language, jargon is pertinent and frequently used. Although within the bioethics community this language may be standard, for those that are outside of this circle this language may only result in confusion, frustration and a clear demographic divide.
One final use of the official style within this article focuses on word choice, and tone. The authors of the article are dealing with an emotionally charged topic, and are attempting to persuade their audience to agree with their viewpoints. However, consider this example and try to decipher what the authors are attempting to accomplish. The authors write; “The dispute would properly be characterized as a debate about the ethics of killing retarded children to harvest their vital organs. The issue could not be resolved by considering how many gravely ill non-retarded people could be saved by extracting a heart, two kidneys, and a liver from each retarded child. The threshold question would be whether it is unjust to relegate a certain class of human beings — the retarded — to the status of objects that can be killed and dissected to benefit others.” This passage is extremely confusing, and hard to read. Not only are the authors speaking in verbose language, and making their argument lengthier than necessary by incorporating words like threshold, and phrases such as, “properly be characterized”, but also their chosen word choice is inappropriate, and awkward. Although the authors are arguing against embryonic stem cell research, and are incorporating scientific approaches and technical language into their argument, when doing so shouldn’t they use a more scientific term than “retarded?” Their overall tone is cold, removed and unattached from the subject, which completely contradicts their purpose in writing the piece. What are the authors’ objectives when phrasing their argument this way? What do they hope to achieve? The lack of a warm, concerned and compassionate tone may be a successful example of the impersonal tone often used when writing in the official style, but it fails at presenting a persuasive voice.
Although the main purpose of this article is to dispute other scholars views and beliefs, the arguments presented would have been portrayed more successfully if many of the elements of the official style were absent, and replaced with more personal, and relatable word choices and examples. On one hand it is always appealing for authors to write in a way that is acceptable and welcomed in the world of academia, and to appear scholarly and well read on a subject. On the other hand, if the target audience is a much wider demographic, all jargon, and inappropriate word choice succeeds at doing is creating discourse. The authors of this article were attempting to persuade an audience to agree with their opinions. However, isn’t it easier to persuade a person, or audience if you are able to make connections with the reader? By using jargon, unnecessary language, and an impersonal tone the authors may succeed more so at confusing their day to day readers, rather than convincing them. Although the official style is an important part of the English language, one must consider the main goal of their writing when determining whether the official or plain style is more appropriate.