Jargon is an common feature in modern intellectual life, as a sign that a person has been initiated into a body of knowledge. These jargon terms are symbols for concepts that have more recognizable words that can also be used to describe the same concepts. But the jargon allows the group to insulate itself from outside scrutiny and to raise the status of the people who understand it within their own sphere.
The pseudoeducated public now sees plain language as low-class. People who use esoteric jargon are respectable, owing to the massive amount of resources that it takes to learn that otherwise useless jargon.
Teachers, even today, often assign Orwell’s essay on this topic, but then proceed to reward their students who churn out jargon-laden papers. After these students graduate, they refocus on promoting the secret language that they learned in the schools, to garner wider adoption of their dialect in a piecemeal fashion.
‘Queer’ and ‘gender’ theory are languages that encourage new emotional and philosophical associations with given jargon terms. Entire clubs in economics form around a given jargon term, aiming to change the emotional associations that people have around certain words representing certain policies. In some cases, like ‘inflation,’ a concerted campaign lasting over 150 years has gone into altering educated opinion on the subject in a subtle way that has had profound impacts.
These clubs formed around linguistic tics, once they have established the new definitions, then get to policing the use of their own language, to ensure that no one misuses the jargon, and places the enforcement of the grammar of the secret language as their highest priority.
This is not sensible behavior, because it impedes the examination, debate, and spread of useful knowledge. It is a sort of intellectual protectionism that limits the potential growth of a set of ideas, and closes off opportunities for exchange. The practice also tends to hobble the jargon-users, because they are more focused on erecting walls around their words and less about making the concepts which the words represent more intelligible to those who might benefit from it.
Because this practice has become endemic, the thinking fraction of the public has become uselessly derivative, thinking thoughts about other thoughts, speaking words representing underlying concepts that they either don’t understand or that don’t exist in the real world.
Since the only criteria for appearing thoughtful is to use the stylish jargon, you wind up with a lot of parrot-humans with colorful feathers that are good at repeating the terms taught them by their trainers, but not good at producing useful thought. These writers exist to repeat the consensus of their superiors, but are incapable of helping their superiors to make better decisions, because all their focus is on repeating the magic language which justifies one political policy or another.
This type of person may know that using words like ‘studies,’ ‘statistics,’ ‘reports,’ and the name of a prestigious institution will result in their words carrying more persuasive impact. It doesn’t matter if they have no understanding of the underlying material: they can appear to have authority by cloaking themselves in the pretense of scientific knowledge.
In the case of the typical person who believes themselves to be capable of thought, it results in mistaking the memorization of a set of jargon terms to be the possession of the underlying knowledge itself. If it develops that the intellectual body which justified the jargon has turned out to be corrupt, the people using the jargon may not react for decades, because they never understood what the terms were intended to represent in any case.
We are all in a state of profound ignorance about the universe. The contemporary mentality puts pressure on most people to appear knowledgeable about everything, to provide more legitimacy to the modern arrangement which places experts in positions of authority to direct all activity. The faith that people have in these experts is in turn justified by giving people the sense that they, also, have the scientific knowledge possessed by the experts, because of their understanding of the jargon terms which purport to symbolize the knowledge which confers power.
To state that something is a mystery to you, or a mystery to mankind, often results in anxiety. It’s easier to reference a theory about it that you don’t have the capacity to understand than to say that you don’t know. In schools, students who respond that they “don’t know” receive a negative mark, even if the statement is true. Even if the answer is not known, you are at least supposed to report back the most fashionable theory that purports to provide an answer.
It’s easy to learn the jargon, but more difficult than most can muster to gain knowledge of the concepts that those terms purport to represent. It often develops that the jargon represents no valid knowledge, but is instead a gateway to one academic language cult or another. Also, many bodies of knowledge are useless without a broad context, because they only examine a given set of variables which are likely impacted by other factors. Knowledge of certain concepts in economics will be profoundly confused without corresponding knowledge of history, and knowledge of history is likely to be confusing without a knowledge of historical art & literature, and those are likely to be misleading without an understanding of religion, and so on and so forth.
The sheer challenge of becoming learned makes it impossible for most to gain general knowledge beyond the borders of their own nation, which would make a genuine ‘multicultural’ education ridiculous. To raise an educated ruler, it would be challenging enough to provide a brilliant youth with a general education of his own country, culture, religion, and those of neighboring states with which he’s likely to have some relations with.
To do the same with the entire world is not feasible, but politics charges the modern university with this responsibility, so the teachers compensate by creating the sense of an education with a mix of extreme detail and vapid generalization. This is excellent at inculcating pride, but not so good at transmitting useful knowledge.
Francis Begbie says
Great post, but it is not endemic to the left. You see this in the reactosphere all the time.
http://www.xenosystems.net/ is just ridiculous.
I think Nick Land is consistently entertaining, but yes, it often turns up.
Peter Blood says
Before I looked at the comments my first reaction was, “He’s talking about the jargonny neo-reaction.”
If I see anything about “spergs” I automatically assume it’s about NRx.
Ricky Vaughn (@Ricky_Vaughn99) says
NRx can be very jargon-y. Gnon instead of just God irks me.
Do both mean exactly the same? I understand Gnon as a (non-existent) personification of totality of laws of nature.
Part of the reason Hemingway was (and in some circles, still is) so reviled in high society and academia was because he recognized the jargon game as just that, a means of showcasing status and position rather than creating meaningful, quality content.
Ricky Vaughn says
One of my favorite Hemingway quotes:
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
I enjoyed Light in August but Faulkner does come across as a flyover guy trying to impress erudite East Coasters at times.
Peter Blood says
Orwell knew the score. One of his rules:
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
I participated in a Hemingway book club a few years ago. We went through each of his major books month by month.
Peter Blood says
All his rules were good:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.