14 May 2005
That great anthropological sage Michael Gilsenan - whose Lords of the Lebanese Marshes once almost started a small civil war in northern Lebanon - turned up this week to lecture at that equally great bastion of learning, the American University of Beirut, founded, as it happens, by Quakers during the 19th-century Lebanese Christian-Druze conflict.
Gilsenan's subject was abstruse enough: Arab migration to what our Foreign Office still calls "the Far East". Most of these migrants, it transpired, came from Arabia, especially the mountainous Hadramaut district of Yemen. Under British rule, they prospered, bought land, left inheritances and, once established, wealthy Arab women also took their place in this new world, even involving themselves in legal disputes.
All very fascinating. But once questions were invited from the floor, Gilsenan was asked about "matrilineal" issues in colonial Singapore. I closed my eyes. "Matrilineal" doesn't exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to. It is part of the secret language of academe - especially of anthropology - and it is a turn-off. We poor dunces should keep our noses out of this high-falutin' stuff. That, I think, is the message. I recall a student raging to me about her anthropology professor who constantly used words like "emic" and "etic" - to this day, I have no idea what they mean; readers are invited to reply - in an attempt to mystify her discipline.
Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever Enough to Understand. A French professor put it to me quite bluntly this week. "If we don't dress up what we want to say in this silly language," she announced, "we are told we are being journalists." Well, well, I can quite see the problem. It's good against evil, us or them, university scholarship or dirty journalism.
It's a new and dangerous phenomenon I'm talking about, a language of exclusion that must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all, any non-university-educated man or woman can pick up an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or '30s and - however Hegelian the subject - fully understand its meaning. No longer.
About three years ago, I received a good example of this from Marc Gopin, visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and a visiting scholar in the programme on negotiation at Harvard. I received his latest book for review, a tome called Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East. A promising title, you might think. Well, think again.
For within pages, I was being bushwhacked by "metaphorical constructs" and "universalist mythic constructs" and "romanticised, amoral constructs of culture" and "fundamental dialogic immediacy" and "prosocial tendencies".
Here is another cracker: "The Abrahamic myth of a loving Patriarch and a loving God who care for a special people has created a home and a meaning system for millions of human beings." Come again? Meaning system? The author grew up, he says, "in a self-consciously exilic spirituality".
He talks abut the "interplay" of "political and mythic interdependencies" and the "ubiquitous human psychological process of othering". He wants to "problematize" intervention at "elite" levels. A rabbi - whom I immediately felt sorry for - was "awash in paradoxicality", which apparently proved that "cognitive dissonance is good for intractable conflicts". Well, you could have fooled me.
There was more: "dialogic injuries", "cultural envelope", "family psychodynamics", "the rich texture of hermeneutic possibility", "porous barriers of spiritual identity" and, of course, my old favourite, "social intercourse". "Dialectic apologetics" makes an appearance, alongside "persecutorial othering" and lots of other "otherings", including a reference to "pious transformation of old cognitive constructs as an end to othering: remythification".
What is interesting is that when Professor Gopin chose to send a letter to President Clinton, which he prints in his book, he wrote in perfectly comprehensible English - indeed, he even got a reply from the old scallywag. The good professor was suggesting that private meetings between Jewish and Islamic leaders should become public under Clinton's leadership and produce "a powerful new force for pursuing peace". No "constructs" here, you note. No "otherings" or "meaning systems" or "paradoxicalities". Because Gopin obviously knew that his academic claptrap wouldn't have got much further than the White House mail room.
So why this preposterous academic language? There's a clue when Gopin compares "dress and behaviour codes in the Pentagon" to "very complex speech and behaviour codes in academia". Yes, university folk have to be complex, don't they. They have to speak in a language which others - journalists, perhaps? - simply would not understand. To enter this unique circle of brain-heavy men and women, all must learn its secret language lest interlopers manage to sneak through the door.
It may be that all this came about as a protective shield against political interference in academe, an attempt to make teaching so impenetrable that no MP, congressman or senator could ever make accusations of political bias in class - on the grounds that they wouldn't have the slightest idea what the lecturer was talking about.
But I think it is about snobbishness. I recall a lady professor at George Mason University, complaining that "most people" - she was referring to truck drivers, Amtrak crews, bellhops and anyone else who didn't oppose the Iraq war - "had so little information". Well, I wasn't surprised. University teachers - especially in the States - are great at networking each other but hopeless at communicating with most of the rest of the world, including those who collect their rubbish, deliver their laundry and serve up their hash browns.
After lecturing at another university in the States, I was asked by a member of the audience how universities could have more influence in the community. I said that they must stop using what I called "the poisonous language of academia". At which there was an outburst of clapping from the students and total silence from the university staff who were present and who greeted this remark with scowls.
No, I'm not saying all teachers speak like this. There is no secret language in the work of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or Martin Gilbert or Noam Chomsky. But it's growing and it's getting worse, and I suspect only students can now rebel against it. The merest hint of "emics" and "constructs" or "hermeneutic possibilities" and they should walk out of class, shouting Winston Churchill's famous retort: "This is English up with which I will not put."