I have a nerdish protest to levy at other nerds. I am reading a book from an academic press, which is about the heartbreaking and fascinating problem of how prison isolation degrades sanity. The writer will describe a vivid moment–which is what I’m reading for–and then she’ll launch into an analysis that cripples itself with such passive-voiced, backward-structured, acadamese that I wonder if she’s actually trying to obscure her argument. Why she would do this is beyond me. Maybe she lacks confidence in her theory. Or maybe she wants the words to muster a kind of authority. Or it’s equally possible that she’s just a bad writer. I don’t know. But I’ve seen this pattern time and again.
I once bought a book about demonic possession, sex, and the inquisition. And it was so impenetrable that I couldn’t get through chapter one. This current book–the prison book–says things like, “The impossibility of not reacting with disgust attests to the visceral qualities of both the situation and the emotion.” What the author is really trying to say is, “When prisoners are desperate enough that they resort to such behaviors as throwing poop at you, there’s no way to keep from reacting with disgust.”
Acadamese is a problem, dearies. When I’m feeling least charitable, I wonder if it functions a bit like loan legalese, where it’s supposed to drive away all but the few, credentialed readers. And the reliance on buzzwords is everywhere. I’ve started theological discussions with scholars who immediately jargoned up their arguments. And when I asked them to define their terms, they revealed that the words referred to totally relatable (and rather mundane) things. There’s no need for this. It’s… well, it’s a kind of bullying.
It’s worth noting that I love to engage in a complicated discussion. I relish a conversation that spirals and branches. I’m not advocating something like Trump’s idea of telling it like it is, because I think the *is* frequently requires caveat and nuance. President Obama, for example, tells is like it is; it’s just (I suspect) that Trump and his followers can’t listen long enough to understand him. What I am suggesting is that we say things clearly, and that we eschew the sentence structure and the jargon that work to deaden and obscure. Some topics are so serious that they can’t afford bad writing. To quote a good line from my sobering prison book, “half the [super-max] prisoners are black and three-fourths are people of color.” Everybody must talk lucidly about this kind of problem.
(Originally posted January 24, 2016)