Monday, June 19, 2006

Academics and Politics

Profs often complain that they are ineffective politically because people resent their intellectual level. No doubt that occurs, but I think the main reason that academics have trouble reaching large audiences is not that they are smarter than their potential listeners, but that their way of speaking conforms to specialized rules of scholarly discourse. A lot of the complexity of professorial language consists of rhetorical Masonic Handshakes that verify the guild membership and status of the speaker to his colleagues; and both habit and humility guarantee that a learned person will make unreasonable assumptions about what the listener already knows about a subject. Meanwhile, academics spend their whole careers trying to come up with something new to say or at least some new way to say something old. This requirement alone guarantees that no simple truth will be uttered, even if it is news to the actual recipient, without a elaborate garnish of ifs, ands, and buts. There is always the suspicion that the plain facts plainly enunciated will not suffice either to maintain one’s own dignity or respect the capacity of the other person, even when the plain facts are already damned hard to explain and nobody knows anything without having learned about it.

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