Obviously, …Posted: 20 April 2019
When it comes my turn to be king of the world I will ban the word ‘obviously’, together with its fellow travellers ‘clearly’ and ‘evidently’. My challenge to you, the other inhabitants of the kingdom of Earth, is this: find me a single example of a sentence that is improved by the use of the word ‘obviously’!
I assert that, not only is ‘obviously’ never an improvement to a sentence, but it usually degrades a sentence into which it is inserted and renders it foolish, pompous, or just plain false.
The first memory I have of encountering this rebarbative word is in mathematics lectures at university. It was the early 1980s. In those days lectures performed their proofs live on the black board with chalk – a difficult endeavour indeed. As soon as you saw that word on a board, you felt that if you couldn’t instantly see why that line followed logically from the line before, you must be very dim. If you hadn’t seen the connection by the time they finished writing the next line, you started to panic. The only solution was to accept the claim without challenge and try to keep up with what came next. There would be time that evening to go over your notes and try to work out why the claim was ‘obviously’ true.
Sometimes in the evening you could figure it out without difficulty. Sometimes you figured it out but it needed a page or so of closely written reasoning to justify it. Sometimes you couldn’t make it out at all. That’s when you had to summon your courage and challenge the lecturer about it before the next lecture. You’d sidle up to him and say ‘Sorry to bother you but I can’t see how you get line five. Can you please explain it?’
In short, it was rarely obvious. Even when it was moderately obvious, there were other lines that were more obvious, for which the tag was not used.
I started to detect a pattern. The word was being used to cover for the fact that the lecturer couldn’t remember, off the top of their head, the justification for the line. By writing ‘obviously’ they made potential hecklers too worried about seeming dumb to challenge the claim on the spot. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. What was needed was the little boy to blurt out ‘But it’s not obvious at all. In fact I can’t even see it.’
I forgive those lecturers, because what they were doing was very difficult. I would feel under a lot of pressure having to perform mathematical derivations on a blackboard in front of a specialist audience.
It is less forgivable when it occurs in text books. In many a mathematics or physics text book I have come across the prefix ‘obviously’ before a line that was the exact opposite. The authors of textbooks do not have the excuse that they have to come up with explanations on the spot, but they are nevertheless under time pressure because, unless a text is chosen as a key text for courses at many major schools or universities, it will not bring in much revenue, so extra time spent writing it makes it even harder to be profitable. Why spend hours deriving a proof of something you are fairly sure is true, but don’t remember why, when you can just write ‘obviously’ in half a second, and move on to the next line?
I don’t begrudge them saving that time, but there are more honest and helpful ways to do it. Other phrases that can be used are “It turns out that…” and “It can be shown that…”. These make it clear that what the author has written is not a full proof, and that the step over which they are glossing is not trivial. When I encounter those I don’t mind very much because they don’t contain the implicit challenge “If you can’t see why this line follows from the last one you must be stupid!”. The most generous excuse of all is “It is beyond the scope of this paper / text / chapter to prove X, so we will take it as read”. That way the reader knows that proof is long and difficult.
It is annoying when academics use the word ‘obviously’ in that way, but at least they use it in relation to a claim that is true. In political argument, that is not the case. People use ‘obviously’ to justify any claim, no matter how dubious, or sometimes just plain wrong. Examples abound, from politicians, shock jocks and reactionary newspaper columnists.
“Obviously, decriminalising marijuana use would make the problem worse”
“Obviously, it makes no difference whether Australia reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, since ours only make up a small part of the world’s total”
“Obviously, what’s needed to solve our city’s traffic problems is to build bigger roads”
“Obviously, we have to be cruel to refugees, otherwise many more would come to our country”.
It’s used as an excuse to not even consider any evidence that may be available, to not even entertain rational discussion on a topic. It implies that anybody that does not accept the claim must be stupid or have dishonest intentions. It’s an attempt to shut down inquiry and discussion, lest that lead to an outcome against which the speaker has an entrenched prejudice.
Is anything ever obvious?
Perhaps, but we need to very careful in suggesting that. What is obvious to one may not be at all obvious to another. A high-visibility yellow vest is obvious to normal-sighted people but not to the colour-blind. A person walking across a basketball court in a gorilla suit is not obvious to observers that have been tasked with counting the number of times each player passes the ball.
Further, beliefs in what is obvious are often founded on stereotypes that may be damaging. Is it obvious that boys are better at maths than girls, or that men cannot be trusted to care for other people’s children?
This leads me to wondering whether there is any sentence in which the word ‘obviously’ can play a useful role. I don’t apply the same challenge to ‘obvious’ because it can have observer-dependent roles, as in “It eventually became obvious to Shona that the doorman was not going to let her into the club”. Or we can use it to express relative obviousness, as in “Not wanting to mislay them, he left his keys in the most obvious position he could think of – in the middle of the empty kitchen bench”.
But “obviously”? That adverbial suffix ‘ly’ seems to strip from the adjective any ability to convey subtleties of degree. There seems to be no way of using it that does not imply that anybody who does not agree with the following proposition, and understand why it must be correct, is simply stupid.
No wonder it is used either as a tool of bullying or as a lazy attempt to escape the need to justify one’s claims.
Sometimes it occurs without intent, as a verbal tic. Like most verbal tics, it is rooted in the insecurity of the speaker. Although it sounds like it has an opposite meaning to other tics like ‘if that makes sense’ or ‘if you like’, it serves the same purpose in deflecting attention from the speaker’s insecurity – but in an offensive rather than a defensive way. In both cases the speaker hopes not to be challenged. With ‘if that makes sense’ the hope is that the humility it projects will discourage a listener from saying ‘that doesn’t sound right’, if only out of charity to the speaker. The ‘obviously’ is like the puffed-out frill of a lizard – a pretence at invulnerability intended to discourage attack: ‘Challenge me on this and you’ll end up looking foolish!’. Except that the intent is usually subconscious and, once one has used the phrase many times, it becomes reflexive, devoid of any meaning, or even of subconscious intent.
I vowed quite some time ago never to use the word, or any of its synonyms. I think I have managed to keep the vow. I hope I have. But I cannot be sure. One uses so many words in the course of a week, that it’s hard to keep track of them all.
If something is truly obvious to almost everybody, there should be no need to state that. It will be obvious that it is obvious. If, as is more often the case, it is far from obvious, it is foolish at best, and dishonest at worst, to imply that it is.
Bondi Junction, April 2019