Saturday, October 26, 2013

Euphemisticly Speaking

Academia loves both jargon and euphemisms. It probably loves jargon more, but the two are closely related because both are a means of avoiding plain talking. Arthur Henry King used to emphasize to his Shakespeare classes how little plain speech there was in Shakespeare because the characters were more interested in affectation and impressing others.

So, a piece by Charles Krauthammer on the subject of euphemisms this week caught my attention. He is talking about politicians; I will excerpt a few quotes that I think apply to academia and elsewhere as well.

Krauthammer lists a number of recent cases of egregious euphemisms and asks why they should be used.
After all, famously declared Hillary Clinton, what difference does it make?

Well, it makes a difference, first, because truth is a virtue. Second, because if you keep lying to the American people, they may seriously question whether anything you say — for example, about the benign nature of NSA surveillance — is not another self-serving lie.

And third, because leading a country through yet another long twilight struggle requires not just honesty but clarity.
Euphemisms, Krauthammer argues, lead to confusion.
The confusion of language is a direct result of a confusion of policy — which is served by constant obfuscation.
And whither does this obfuscation lead?
The result is visible ambivalence that leads to vacillating policy reeking of incoherence. 
In academia obfuscation is often used to mask muddled thinking and incoherent arguments.
The wordplay is merely cover for uncertain policy embedded in confusion and ambivalence about the whole enterprise.
I understand the need for disciplines to have specific jargon. Sailors, for example, have a name for every rope on the boat. Apprentices were required to "learn the ropes" (the origin of that phrase) so that they would then "know the ropes" (the origin of that phrase) so that when an order to do something specific with a certain rope was given, the sailor would know exactly what to do, which could mean life or death for the whole ship in some situations. From an outsider's perpective, all that nautical terminology is jargon; from an insider's perspective it is necessary specificity. But the advantage of knowing the ropes, is that in calm seas you can teach someone else the ropes. Too often in academia, obfuscation is used to obscure the fact that you really do not know what you are talking about. As Hugh Nibley once said, "If you cannot explain it to a five-year old, you probably do not understand it yourself."

Euphemisms are often failed attempts to candy-coat a policy reeking of incoherence.