Robert Fisk has a column in today’s Independent; unfortunately it’s one you have to pay to read online.
So no link. (*UPDATE* I found a free access version at Fisk’s website. So you can read and decide for yourselves whether what follows is a fair representation.) Anyway, the headline is “Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous claptrap of exclusion”. Which pretty much sums up the tone of the contents.
Words or phrases that Fisk thinks are just too big and hard include:
fundamental dialogic immediacy
political and mythic interdependencies
ubiquitous human psychological process of othering
Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever Enough to Understand.
(And don’t suggest that he should try expanding his vocabulary by looking them up. He says firmly, early on: ” ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to.”)*
This “language of exclusion”, he thinks, “must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all any non-university educated man or woman can pick an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or ’30s and – however Hegelian the subject – fully understand its meaning. No longer.” (That just seems such a challenge: pick some random Hegelian philosophy theses from the early 20th century and see what my mum and dad make of them. Or me, for that matter. Yeah, I can see us now, full of enlightenment, chatting about Hegel over the Sunday roast.)
I know, most of those words I’ve listed (but ‘elite’?) are not exactly what you’d find in everyday speech or even in a broadsheet newspaper. And I often struggle with ‘theory’ people’s writing; but, very often, less because of individual words or concepts than the clunking, convoluted manner in which the buggers string them together. (In other words it’s not the language/vocabulary that’s the problem, it’s a lack of writing skills. And it’s quite true that poor writing + heavy theory (tends to) = extreme violence to language.) I’m not defending bad writing here.
But how about an alternative list of academic words for you?
nematode cell lineages
Know what any of those mean? (PZ, sit down.) They were picked at random from PZ Myers’ beautiful blog Pharyngula; they’re all terms from biology, and I think are all evolution-related. I could equally turn to online conversations between physicists or chemists to find incomprehensible terminology. Or what about the impenetrable thickets, to most of us, of economics and statistics? Do you know what the following mean: linear regression, multivariate regression, loess smoother…? (Randomly picked up at Crooked Timber.)
My point is not to complain about these disciplines for using language I don’t understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. (And, just to make this clear, PZ is a marvellous writer.) We have no problem recognising that many academics in science fields need specialist language in order to do their job, and that frequently means impenetrability to the majority of people outside their fields. When someone like Fisk talks about ‘academics’ in this kind of article, he doesn’t mean all academics, does he? I don’t notice him demanding that mathematicians stop using all those secret algebraic symbols which others (read: journalists, despite a few rhetorical flourishes about the little people) don’t understand. Mathematicians, stop doing that, you make us all feel stupid!
No, of course not. What Fisk is talking about are anthropologists, political theorists, literary theorists, linguists and so on (the ‘soft’ social sciences and ‘theoretical’ humanities, if you like). And I object strongly to the idea that in these fields it is “poisonous” and “snobbishness” for us to do what is regarded as normal for other academic fields (and, of course, many non-academic specialist fields too): to develop our own concepts for our own use, which are complex because the subjects they are used to describe and analyse are complex; and which have to be learned.
Of course, at times we also need to communicate beyond our highly-trained colleagues and speak to wider audiences (including journalists with inadequate dictionaries). But, then, so do the scientists. If Fisk were simply saying that we should do more of that, fair enough. But what he actually does is to argue that humanities academics should not use any language beyond the capacities of the average a) journalist or b) first-year college student. Not in books, not in the classroom, not in lectures.
If the general public doesn’t understand what scientists are talking about, obviously it’s because the subjects are really hard. If it doesn’t understand what humanities scholars are talking about, blame the scholars for inventing a “secret language” that makes everyone else feel inferior and stupid. Because, of course, the subject of humanities (human beings and all their works…) isn’t at all hard to understand, is it?
* By the way, the first appearance of ‘matrilineal’ given in the OED is from 1904.