Last week I had the pleasure of attending a conference at Princeton University celebrating the life and work of Leon Kass. For two days I sat and listened to one outstanding presentation after another, until I felt obliged to turn to the friend on my right and whisper to him, “I think I must be the dumbest man in the room.” This was not an unprecedented experience for me. But in a room filled with people such as Robert George, Cornel West, Leon Kass, and their various students, past and present, the feeling this time was particularly acute.
It was not simply the brilliance of the presentations that impressed upon me my intellectual shortcomings. Topics ranged from artificial intelligence to transhumanism to sexual identity to the nature of beauty. None of these are subjects in which I am remotely competent. Yet all of them were clear, cogent, and comprehensible to me. Lacking the studiedly obscure jargon that dominates so much academic discourse, the presentations revealed my ignorance not by confusing me with opaque verbiage but by teaching me what I did not previously know.
Now, I have taught in higher education for nearly twenty-five years and have read and listened to far more gibberish and jargon than is surely good for my mental health. Jargon is no respecter of religious creed or political conviction, and it is to be found on both the right and the left (though the left does, on the whole, seem to employ it with more regularity). And I believe that obscurantist jargon is perhaps the most dangerous and widespread toxin in academia today.
Here, for example, are a couple of paragraphs I recently encountered in the reissue of Mary Daly’s classic Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism:
In 1975 also my Lesbian Life-Time took on a New dimension. Complex and tumultuous from the start, my experience of ecstatic connectedness at this Time made it possible for me to Spin Gyn/Ecology so that it flourished in ways that previous books had not. No doubt, had there not been such a Be-Dazzling connection I would have written a book during that time, but it would, I am sure, have been less alive and daring than Gyn/Ecology became, as it Unfolded into its own shape of be-ing. It was in the rich, ecstatic Aura (O-Zone) of my connectedness with Denise that my writing flowed and sparkled, deep into the Hag-Time of night and early morning. In the Time before sunrise the landscape/seascape/skyscape of this book opened up to me, as I was Heard into the right words by the Sparking and Spinning of that Boon Companion who arrived in Tidal Time.
With its hackneyed images and its portentous but pointless use of random capitalization and hyphenation, this passage is (ironically) among the more well-written and comprehensible in the book. But what does it mean? The answer is simple: Nothing. Nothing at all. It is gibberish, designed not to communicate information or to transform the reader but to bedazzle and bamboozle those dim enough to fall for it. The contrast with, say, the educational vision and pellucid style of a Leon Kass could hardly be greater.
Such jargon seems to fulfill three purposes in academe. It allows the peddlers of the banal, the obvious, and often the downright incorrect to hide their superficiality beneath an illusion of depth and learning. In this sense, it is a kind of pseudo-intellectual confidence trick that scams time and money out of students who know no better.
But it also has more sinister implications. It fosters cults of personality, whereby the guru recruits those willing to learn the lingo into his own little army of followers. Education becomes an exercise in cloning, rather than thinking.
Finally, and most sinister of all, by constructing a wall of gnostic nonsense, jargon precludes any criticism from those outside the guild of True Believers. Indeed, in the world of the jargonauts, failure to be part of the linguistic cult becomes at best a sign of false consciousness, at worst an act of oppression. This self-referentiality plays a role in the simplistic politics and nasty moral certainties that now seem to dominate campus politics. Dialogue and mutual respect depend upon a common, transparent language, and a view of education predicated on such. The deliberate destruction of these, and the cultivation of their opposite, are not simply means of hiding one’s lack of real insight or building an army of benighted disciples. They are political acts with far-reaching consequences.
Years ago, while I was on faculty at the University of Nottingham, a colleague and I used to play a game with the students. We would give them a quiz consisting of paragraphs drawn from great theologians and philosophers, which they had to attribute. In every quiz we included one paragraph of complete gibberish, which we had made up ourselves over a pint of beer in the faculty club. Words such as “alterity,” “the Other,” and “subjectification” abounded, along with nouns used as verbs and a plethora of hyphenated neologisms and random capitalizations. The students never failed to attempt some kind of attribution (Paul Tillich, I think, was usually the most popular) and to profess admiration for the depth of thought and insight contained in the paragraph.
There is a lesson there. Perhaps the dumbest man in the room is not the man who cannot understand gibberish, but the man who cannot see gibberish for what it is. And perhaps the most dangerous people on campus are those who understand this human weakness and take full, cynical advantage of it. Our political problems have deep educational roots. Until the matters of jargon and gibberish are addressed, I suspect that things are unlikely to improve.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Header image: CC licensed flickr photo by cogdogblog.