A Short Piece

The Risks of Complicated Language

Using technical terms, it’s easy to miss out on deeper insights.

Photo by Romain Vignes

I doubt anyone wakes up one day and decides they want to use complicated language. Sure, we can accuse academics of wanting to show off, and I’m sure sometimes they do, but that’s the simple answer — what’s the real reason for jargon? Well, when the topic we’re discussing is so complex and difficult, we end up using phrases like “ontological negativity,” “substitutionary atonement,” “anarcho-primitivism” — I could go on — just to save time. Explaining every term and justifying the concept every time would mean when we sat down to write a note, we’d end up with a book.

O.G. Rose Conversations Episode #5

Imagine that whenever we wanted to use the word “red” we had to explain “redness.” How do we even describe “redness?” It’s harder than it seems, way harder. If we encountered someone who had never seen “redness” (and so didn’t just “know” what the word “red” meant), it would be extremely doubtful that we’d ever be able to describe the color in a way that made the listener have a real grasp and “vision” of what we were talking about. Likewise, if we’ve never read Deleuze for ourselves, it’s extremely doubtful a Deleuze scholar could “fill us in” enough where we could understand Deleuze as well as someone who’s tried to tackle the primary texts. Considering this, perhaps a lot of what we call “jargon” would actually be relatively clear if we just took the time to read the primary texts. To their defense, I think this often happens to academics: they’re not trying to be complex; it’s just unavoidable to fail to describe to the general public ideas the public has never encountered at all.

On the other hand, intellectuals might embrace jargon because they know they can never fully explain Deleuze to people who have never read Deleuze, so why even bother? Might as well go all in and use a language that only Deleuzians can understand. Indeed, that is the temptation, and in some contexts that is entirely appropriate to increase the efficiency of language so that deeper ideas can be reached and discussed. Still, I think it’s best to avoid jargon as much as possible.

Okay, fine — writers hear that all the time — but what’s the argument? First, we could lose readers, and second, it’s tempting to use jargon so that it’s harder for readers to “pin down” what exactly we’re saying. Also, people associate complexity with intelligence, so not only can we avoid criticism, but we can come off as brilliant. It’s also easier for writers to use complex terms and leave it up to the readers to figure them out versus explain those terms well and compressively. Incentives are on the side of jargon, but we should resist them.

Okay, sure, it might hurt our chances at publication, but what if we write for ourselves and don’t care what other people think? Does technical jargon matter so much then?

I still wouldn’t use it.

No, I’m not saying avoid complicated topics, and I understand that it’s impossible to make some points using common language. Also, what constitutes “complicated language” is subjective, so there are no hard rules for how to do it. Still, while critical of our own standards, we should do our best to talk as simply as possible.

Why?

Because most of the complex terms out of Heidegger, Deleuze, psychotherapy, and the like, are probably terms we have “more of a sense of” than a hard and concrete “grasp of.” We can use the terms because we understand them enough to “have a sense” of how to use them, but that sense might blind us from a lack of deep understanding (and certainly few readers will be able to “check and balance” us, not fully grasping the language either, which could contribute to us possessing a false sense of how efficiently we communicate).

If our writing is complex, it doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t saying anything, but it does mean we should be extremely skeptical of ourselves.

By forcing ourselves to write clearly as much as possible, we force ourselves to think clearly. And perhaps we use jargon and indeed think very clearly, but why not then just avoid the jargon altogether? The risk seems too great. Because it can accelerate the writing process and efficiency of language? Maybe, but I still wouldn’t take that risk — I don’t trust myself enough.

When we write with only a “sense” of what we are writing, we might be writing on a very simple idea and think it’s extremely deep: the jargon could trick us. Furthermore, because we don’t fully grasp what we are saying — and here’s the main risk — we might not “push forward” and discover all the insights we otherwise could. We may think we’ve said something profound and so cease our exploration; on the other hand, if we wrote simply, it would be easier to tell if we’ve said something profound or not, and to follow our own train of thought, increasing the possibility that we could continue to follow it to new ideas. If we want to climb a staircase, we need to feel like each step is “solidly” under us, not just have a “sense” of the steps.

Lastly, ideas matter and can have powerful consequences, both for good and for bad. If we only have a “sense” of what we write, there is a chance we practically “toss a grenade around” without realizing it. There is something about complicated language that can be too causal, given the gravity and power of ideas, even though complicated language is often associated with seriousness. Jargon is both causal for the writer who may only have a “sense” of what he or she writes and a causal way to treat the reader, because if the reader misunderstands the ideas and tries to live according to those misunderstandings, the reader could suffer. Ideas can change the world, and for that reason, handling them with only a vague “sense” is inappropriate. For ourselves and for others, precisely because we are aware of the power of philosophy and do not believe philosophy is mere poetry, we need to strive to be clear.

We should avoid jargon not just so that we have a bigger audience, but so that we don’t miss out on insight, blinded by a “sense” from what’s just up ahead. Again, in some contexts, perhaps when surrounded by Deleuzian scholars, using jargon is perfectly fine and even encouraged, but we must make distinctions in our minds between when jargon is appropriate and when it isn’t, not only because the public will misunderstand us, but also so that we ourselves can keep up with where are thinking will take us. We will traveler farther using a map we have a firm grasp on versus a map we only have a sense of understanding.

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