Caleb’s Corner: To hell with jargon

Caleb Headshot Xander Opiyo/THE REVIEW
Editor in Chief Caleb Owens.

Editor in Chief

In every pamphlet in every department, college markets itself as a place to get “real world” skills, somewhere to acquire tools and knowledge that will equip you for any job the market can come up with. (This is surely the pitch that prospective admits received this weekend, at whatever it was that inundated campus on Saturday.) There’s an interesting, implicit confession here — a self-acknowledgement that college is apart from and somehow superior to the “real world”— but it’s also a claim that too often turns out to be wrong.

Consider the following utterance, one that would not and could not come out of a mouth that was not college-educated (I suggest imagining this coming from someone who sorta looks like me but in nicer clothes and with a more pretentious, less Midwestern voice): “The clear reasons for international geopolitical tension concern working-class grievances created and left unremedied by the inexorable tide of neoliberal globalization that has precipitated the alienation of the workforce, a void filled by emergent populist-nationalist movements and leaders.”

Or the following: “#MeToo is the eruption of latent frustration within those left disenfranchised and oppressed by a patriarchal paradigm, an attempted inversion of a phallogocentric (Ok, I haven’t heard anyone use this recently, but I’m waiting) symbolic order in which woman is constructed by man — an attempt to seize power previously buttressed and reproduced by a patriarchal-capitalist-hierarchical ideology.”

(A brief note: I just made these sentences up, but am confident that they exist elsewhere, if in slightly less obnoxious variations, and apologize for any unintentional plagiarism of these pathetically unoriginal statements.)

These sentences, as I mentioned, are a clear indication that somebody has received an education, uploaded with sufficient jargon and directionless anger. Sentences of this sort are built up with several common words — “systematic,” “oppression,” “hierarchy” — that get so overused they cease to mean anything. They’re the kind of things that I’ve grown weary of hearing in class, in the New York Times, at cafes, and that, shamefully, I myself have produced in more serious contexts. They’re sentences that, even if I can figure out what they mean, have no apparent connection to the real world. The ability to produce such sentences is therefore not what I would call a real-world skill.

And yet, as we shuttle more people into higher education, emphasizing more and more its enlightening virtues — both for students and everyone they will subsequently interact with — we create more mindless yet well-intentioned automata, programmed to forcefully spit out endless streams of forceless bullshit.

But, you might say, how can you deny the patriarchy? Globalization is clearly a problem! Populism!!!

I’m not denying that these terms describe real things, or at least intend to. Clearly, there are forces in the world that resemble something like what the terms “globalization” and “patriarchy” try to capture. My argument, however, is that there are much better words to capture these things.

For instance, if I bump into a guy who just got laid off from a manufacturing job, I don’t say, “Poor proletarian, the mechanization of the means of production have left you alienated and disenfranchised! Vote for Bernie Sanders!” I say instead, “Corporate bastards.”

Or, if I witness something grossly misogynistic happen, I don’t say “The patriarchy enabled this moment of toxic masculinity to exert itself through the objectification of woman, constructed within the patriarchal-capitalist ideology.” I say instead “Sexist creep.”

Or, we can remove the need for expletives and insults altogether and just say, plain and simple, “That’s wrong.”

These alternatives, to me at least, carry far more moral force than theoretical abstractions do. The in-the-moment, gut responses seem to more fully capture what’s happening, the wrongness of it. I’m not suggesting that everybody run around mindlessly swearing in response to everything bad — my own experience, particularly in this newsroom, tells that this approach is not very constructive — but you get the idea.

What I’m worried about, then, is how the academy, in imposing its discourse on unwitting students, is destroying our capacity for real, honest conversation.

It’s not that these theoretical interpretations are necessarily wrong — it’s that they belong in a book, not coming out of an everyday person’s mouth. The whole idea is that these theoretical terms and descriptions are abstract — that they’re intellectual tools designed to approach and analyze our world in a disinterested fashion within a common discourse. I do not deny that they serve a useful academic and professional purpose.

But most students do not enter a career in the academy. When students walk away with these terms, thinking they’re all smart, and step into “real-world” jobs — policymaking, journalism, activism and other public jobs and roles that dictate the living, breathing reality of millions of people — they stray further and further from reality, conditioned to see things that are fundamentally not real through the lens of abstraction, transforming a skewed perception of reality into an intellectual game. In turn, everything they write and say is immediately inaccesible to people without a college education, or without that kind of college education. As the academy grows in economic and social importance, accompanied by growing divides in educational access and economic opportunity, the problem will only get worse.

And my deeper worry is that these words and sentences will continue to disable discussion about things that are important. When terms like “toxic masculinity” and “systematic racism” (the latter seems to me a tautology, as does arguably the former, but I’ve heard it used many times), real as these miserable phenomena are, constantly get packaged into the same scripts, delivered by the same people in the same contexts, they provoke more eye-rolls than thought. In important ways, these terms fail to communicate the desired message, doing little to capture the plight and frustration that disadvantaged groups face.

We need a new vocabulary, one that allows people to engage in and with the “real world,” confronting reality with the appropriate terms. One that doesn’t convert everything into a theoretical proposition, subject to the probably wrong methods and interpretations of a given academic discipline. Our social justice warriors need new verbal weaponry.

In the meantime, if you really want “real-world” skills, here’s where I recommend you go for a lesson: anywhere besides a classroom.

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