On Jargon

The New York Review of Books is running a series of essays that reflect on the first year of the Trump Presidency.  Today they published one such piece by Marilynne Robinson entitled "Rhetoric & Responsibility."

She focuses narrowly on the responsibility of universities and educators to prepare students to participate in conversations.  In her view universities are failing.  I'm not sure I disagree with her.  In particular:

In-group language usually signifies and defends an elite of some sort, and the tendency of this particular jargon is to imply that books, history, experience itself, are not to be understood by the uninitiated. Indeed, there are interpretive dogmas ready to demonstrate that the writer actually meant the opposite of what he thought he meant, or something else altogether, being inevitably implicated in the biases of his period and social class, and an entrenched defender of these interests, whatever his words might say. This notion is elitist in the worst sense, and divisive as well. Insights that are ahead of their time, or more generous than their circumstances, should be acknowledged and valued. This school of criticism deals with class, race, and gender as if these categories were simple, hard-edged, and all-determining, which is retrograde nonsense in the first place as well as a blow to mutual intelligibility.

I start to lose her with her use of the word "elitist" (I hate that word), but given that the rest of the point is compelling, I'll let that slide.

The utility of language in division, obfuscation, and insulation is one we continuously underestimate.  I think that my progressive brethren have loads of issues to work through, but their inability to talk about their ideas with any measure of clarity and specificity is the one that drives me the most crazy.  Not because it's the most pressing, but because it's a tool that makes solving the bigger challenges possible in the first place.  Failing that ability to communicate with simplicity, honesty, and clarity even solving the larger issues bedeviling them will be of limited use.

Using jargon and language to avoid explaining their ideas clearly or reckoning with a lengthy intellectual history that shares ancestors with ideas they consider abhorrent is a problem, and an one that no one seems particularly keen on addressing.