So, what speech habits annoy you the most? Well, starting a statement, especially an answer to a question, with “so”, obviously. But the one that is really getting to me at the moment is “going forward”. For example, a government minister who was on the radio yesterday morning said, in relation to some issue that had been raised, that “that will need to be part of our thinking going forward”. What does that phrase add to his meaning? What does the addition of those two words add to the meaning of “that will need to be part of our thinking”? But apart from being superfluous to the meaning of what is said, the most annoying thing about the phrase is the ubiquity of its use amongst politicians and local government officers. Nearly all the presentations that I’ve sat through recently have included this phrase. Often. Very often.
Perhaps it’s meant as some kind of assurance that we are not going backwards, that we are not returning to some vague period in the past when things were even worse than they are now. Perhaps it’s meant to imply progress. But progress towards what? Some inevitable (predetermined) future? Towards some undefined situation where ‘things’ are better than they are now? But what ‘things’? And in what way ‘better’? I think its this implied, yet vague and unspecified sense of a positive future that I find so annoying. At the mundane level the phrase is just superfluous. Time only moves in one direction. There is only one direction of travel. But at another level it tries to deceive us that things are getting better, but without stating how.
It would help, I think, if we all had a generally agreed sense of what we are trying to achieve. Aristotle famously pointed out that everything we do we do in order to achieve some end, some good. We go to work, for example, partly (or solely) to earn money, but perhaps (ideally) because we believe that our work is doing some good. But even if we only work for the money, that is a good for us in as much as it allows us to pay the rent and put food on the table. Aristotle went on to argue that these ends were, in their turn, means to some further end or good, and that this chain of reasoning could continue until you reach a final end, the greatest good. Aristotle thought this greatest good to be eudaimonia, an ancient Greek word often translated as happiness, but more accurately translated as flourishing. Human flourishing, in both its personal and social contexts.
My point is not that we should all become students of Aristotle. My point is that what is missing from our collective life together is some sense of where we are heading, what we are trying to achieve, some vision of our greatest good. I don’t expect us all to agree, and I certainly don’t want to be presented with some corporate long term plan complete with ‘smart’ targets or key performance indicators. But some open public discussion and debate about the type of future we are trying to create for our children and grandchildren would be a good start. Perhaps then the phrase “going forward” will start to mean something.