“Why do people write like this?”

Virginia Postrel asks, in response to:

[. . .]

I think you might fail to consider that religious progressives might finally awaken from their decades long slumber to answer the call against idolatry. One can cherish the “feminine” without relying on post-capitalist constructions of the “feminine” to acknowledge the embodiedness of gender. One can be LGBT friendly without becoming a materialist or a vulgar libertarian.

[. . .]

She has a point, though I suspect that few people really do write like that except in academia or related fields. For those people who do write as in the sample above, perhaps the writing style functions mainly as an indicator of group solidarity. Whereas prospective street-gang members might have to commit crimes to prove that their allegiance to the gang tops their allegiance to the law and outsiders, so perhaps are members of some academic disciplines (“disciplines”?) expected to write incomprehensible jargon to prove their allegiance to the theories and/or values of their fellow savants.

But in terms of actually communicating ideas — assuming that’s really the goal — maybe these people would be better off writing clearly and substituting some more benign ritual (urinating on fire hydrants?) to show solidarity with the intellectual pack.

12 thoughts on ““Why do people write like this?””

  1. Writing clearly is a lot of work. And the process itself will often shine a harsh light on the flaws, assumptions and contradictions that will otherwise remain safely camouflaged under an intimidating layer of intimidating, obfuscated terminology.

  2. Sure it’s work to write well, but it’s also work to write stylized jargon. You may as well learn to write clearly — unless you’re writing in an environment where stylized jargon is rewarded.

    BTW, please check your chicagoboyz email.

  3. I think Jonathan is right that few people write like this (thank God) except in academia. But that just makes me wonder why academics, even ones bowing to an “intellectual pack,” write such self-evident nonsense.

    My guess is: politics. Universities have long been seeding grounds for political radicals, and political radicals have long been sowers of willfully obscure, insincere speech. Just look how seriously Marx is still taken — the same Marx who in his own time was regarded by academics as an unscrupulous hack.

    But politics aside, the email Virginia posted reminded me of the four questions Orwell advised writers ask themselves before setting pen to paper:

    1. What am I trying to say?
    2. What words will express it?
    3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
    4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

    Did Virginia’s emailer even ask question number one?

  4. They write like this because doing so is how they get jobs!

    I’m always amused by the way in which academics, so quick to look down on the economic or even (gasp) commercial motives of others, will themselves for cash, status and pension benefits jump through hoops, stoop to indignities and collude in personal betrayals which would leave the rest of us gagging.

  5. Right on, JK. I have numerous friends and relatives who are in academics. The vileness, treachery and cruelty of academic politics is beyond anything I have ever seen in the private sector. Writing like this is like a gang initiation. You have to show you have no self-respect and will accept total intellectual degradation to be in the “club”. It is a rational way for the insiders to keep the thing a closed shop.

  6. I immediately thought of Orwell too:

    “The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

    From Politics and the English Language

  7. Jonathan, Sylvain, etc.

    Here’s a link to C.S. Peirce: “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”


    I suspect that much of the writing I read that uses academic or intellectual jargonism in place of clarity is purposefully obscure in order to avoid being held to a definition that commits one to a specific, and possibly disprovable, proposition or thesis. A vague or unclear definition of a term makes serious counter argument or objection to some claim related to that term easily dismissed as ‘uninformed’. And should a difficult contradiction arise, one can always add some new sublety of ‘meaning’ in response. Why do they do it? I don’t know why. Maybe because most academics are trained in rhetoric and not logic. But in truth, I don’t know.

    It’s hard not to agree with Orwell regarding political and/or ideological speech intended to control and hold power via selective defintion. Or Lewis Caroll for that matter… who had either Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum (I get them mixed up) say to Alice:

    “He who Defines, Rules.”

  8. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt talk about this sort of arrant nonsense at book length in Higher Superstition, which is very highly recommended.

    There isn’t one ‘reason’, but a whole host of them, all ultimately stemming from the rejection of logic and scientific thought as a tool of capitalist oppression that characterises the academic Left. It has now mutated to the point where the fractured syntax, unorthodox punctuation and wholesale hijacking of mathematical and scientific terms for purposes they were not intended to serve is a badge (the Lacan-ists would call it a signifier) of office; it says that the writer is of good standing in the community.

    The wilfully obscurantist verbiage in which post-modernist and post-structualist writers couch their material is indeed also in many cases to hide the barren-ness of their arguments. It’s not entirely true to say that everything in the social sciences is either banal or false (with the sole counter-example being Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage), but when you look at the reams of tendentious drivel masquerading as scholarship that has gushed forth from the academy in the last few decades it is hard not to concur.

    As for Lex and JK: it’s often said that academic politics are the most vicious because the stakes are so low (I think it was Bertrand Russell who coined this first).

  9. I would wager that the writer holds a six-figure degree. He could have saved himself $99,992 in buying a copy of Strunk & White, and become a better author.

  10. David Horowitz argues that one of the reasons so many flock to the left, and one reason that academia is packed with leftists, is that political loyalty is rewarded more than excellence. Thus a loyal leftist is able to get a first rate job with first rate pay and first rate prestige, in spite of his second rate intellect, third rate work and fourth rate ideas. This works in academia because bad ideas won’t bankrupt you; a prof can be full of horrid ideas, and as long as he is getting published and bringing notoriety to the university, he will have a safe job. See, e.g. Peter Singer, the chicken-loving “bioethicist” at Princeton.

    I don’t know how true his theory is, but it sure jibes with what I saw from the profs teaching the Transgendered Theory of Shakespeare when I was an undergrad…

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