Against Further Obfuscatory Practices

I’ve recently done a LOT of reading – and not the fun kind. I read through our mortgage documents (technically we have two mortgages; the explanation of why is simple but dull so I won’t go into it here) from beginning to bitter end (and the contract of sale for the house, which was also about a hundred pages), and I just (today) completed a Senior First Aid Certificate course, which takes eight or nine hours on the day, and assumes six hours of study (from the 400-page book) beforehand (there is a workbook to fill out in preparation, plus written and physical exams).

The difference in language, however, was striking.

The contract for sale does actually include a lot of information – building permissions, pest reports, whether the house is falling down or not. It has about twenty pages of, “Hey look man, I know that the whole point of you paying hundreds of dollars to me is for me to do my job, which is to tell you if the house is okay or not, but if it DOES turn out to be a termite-infested asbestos-walled shack then it’s totally not my fault and you can just get stuffed” but it does at least have some pretty simple summary bits that any normal literate person can understand (if they can find them, and followed every time by, “This is just a summary man, so it totally doesn’t count at all and you really need to read the other twenty pages including the bit about me not necessarily reporting anything wrong despite catastrophic flaws that you’ll discover two minutes after moving in.”)

The main task of a conveyancing lawyer appears to be sticking stamps on forms and sending them back and forth, followed closely by – seriously – reading the two contracts (one signed by the buyer and one signed by the seller) and making sure they’re the same. This costs $1500, and is just about worth it. (Those who know more about conveyancing law can feel free to chime in and outline what other jobs lawyers do. Oh, and sidebar: the forms the LAWYER sent us say stuff along the lines of, “We totally recommend you get another lawyer, because you never know – they might be better than us” and, “If you are utterly legally screwed that’s totally nothing to do with us. Be careful out there!”)

But before this post gets any longer, here’s the point: It was abundantly clear that the 400-page St John’s First Aid Book was trying its darndest to make an extremely complicated thing – what to do when one of the many intricate systems of the human body gets stuffed up in any of a million different and often life-threatening ways – as utterly simple as possible. And may God bless them for that.

It was also abundantly clear that each one of the documents in my mortgage folder was designed to make a simple thing (“You are borrowing money off us to buy a house. If you don’t pay us the money, we take the house back – and probably a bit more just for fun”) as confusing and unreadable as possible – including the bits that said things like, “We can totally change rates without direct notice to you at any time, then punish you if you don’t get everything exactly right, and we can pretty much make you dance and dance for mercy and then just laugh and take all your money and all your children’s money and your house too – anytime we feel like it.”

Which I do believe is actually a lie. In Australia, we have a government and a population that would destroy a bank that tried to actually pull that kind of thing (the government being the bit that makes claims like that illegal from the start). That kind of thing is written into a long and scary document that only the very brave will dare to read. The entire system is designed to make you feel helpless and a bit guilty, so that the bank can try to screw you over in smaller ways and get away with it.

“Banks are evil” is a pretty weak moral to the story, but there it is.

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