I spent Christmas reading Roger Scruton’s critique of leading thinkers of the New Left and Roderick Strange’s volume of selected letters of John Henry Newman. Both men write beautiful, clear prose. Indeed, Newman indicates to a student at Maynooth that this clarity of prose style is the natural result of what he believes writing to be. On the purpose of writing, he declares:
First, a man should be in earnest, by which I mean, he should write, not for the sake of writing, but to bring out his thoughts. He should never aim at being eloquent. He should keep his idea in view, and write sentences over and over again till he has expressed his meaning accurately, forcibly, and in few words. He should aim at being understood by his hearers or readers. He should use words which are most likely to be understood—ornament and amplification will come to him spontaneously in due time, but he should never seek them.
Scruton would no doubt agree. His prose is always pellucid and clear. Indeed, one of the running criticisms throughout his new book is the generally tortuous obscurity of the writings that constitute the canonical foundations and philosophical expressions of the New Left.
Of course, the refusal of the New Left to communicate clearly and its love of barbaric neologisms are well-known. The ever-expanding linguistic correctitude demanded by the Social Justice Warriors with reference to the kaleidoscope that is identity politics is merely the most obvious example. Justice jargon forms an ever-growing malignant web of such linguistic complexity that today’s righteously indignant spider is always in danger of becoming tomorrow’s hapless fly.
What Scruton argues about this, however, seems to be somewhat novel: That the linguistic and terminological smog which the chimney stacks of Leftist intellectualism pump into the atmosphere is actually the whole point. This mumbo jumbo is intended to obfuscate, not communicate, for in so doing it gives a veneer of scientific seriousness and intellectual integrity to what is being said.
I am sure Scruton is right. But I also suspect there is more to the intentional obfuscation of the New Left than an attempt to appeal to an audience with a sophomoric tendency to mistake arcane bombast for profundity. New Left jargon is also Gnostic, a private language which is comprehensible (if at all) only to true believers and, as such, of a piece with the fundamental principle of New Left politics: That of disenfranchising any and all dissent.
Every totalitarianism, Left and Right, depends upon the principle of disenfranchisement. History gives ample evidence of this: Jews, kulaks, the bourgeoisie, class traitors, etc. Seek out, label, and thereby disenfranchise is the time-honored strategy of extremists.
Last year has provided an abundance of examples of how disenfranchisement is the order of the day for the Left. Does a significant historical figure not conform to the exacting moral standards of today’s Manhattan cocktail party-goers or over-indulged Ivy Leaguers? Then erase them from history. Nay, simply erase the history. Saves time later. And does somebody today hold to a position on marriage or sexuality which fails whatever test Slate cares to set? Then by definition they have no place in polite society.
And New Left philosophical mumbo jumbo plays an important role in this process too. The rebarbative jargon of thinkers from Althusser to Žižek has turned terms such as justice, equality, and the basic categories of personal identity into species of Gnostic knowledge on which only the illuminati can opine. And when Gnostic knowledge is the order of the day, then inability to understand the mumbo jumbo of the day is not a failure of mere literacy but of morality.
Strange to tell, perhaps clear communication is now the supreme act of revolutionary defiance. Teaching people to write clearly could be the most significant political action in which to engage at this moment in time because clear prose poses a direct challenge to the mumbojumbocrats' view of the world. The very idea that one can indeed write—and should write—to communicate carries with it a whole political philosophy, or at least a whole philosophy of the polis—one where society is seen as constituted by people who can passionately hold to differing views and yet can still talk meaningfully to each other, where the past is more than just something to be erased as and when convenient, and where disagreement does not always require the histrionic disenfranchising of those with whom we disagree.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.